BUENOS AIRES — The governments of China and Argentina are fine-tuning a memorandum of understanding that could mean billions of dollars in direct foreign investment. But not everyone is celebrating. Ask environmental groups, and they'll tell you the deal stinks to high hell — literally.

The debate centers around 25 farms and meat processing plants that, according to the terms of the agreement, are to be built in Argentina and will together double exports of Argentine pork products to China, from approximately 700,000 tons a year to 1.3 million tons.

To reach that export target, each of the new farms must raise up to 12,000 sows, which no farm in Argentine does at present. That's one of the reasons environmentalists and their allies are openly demanding that Foreign Minister Felipe Solá stop the memorandum, which is set to be signed in the coming weeks.

"We do not want to become a pig factory for China or a new pandemics factory," a group of more than 100 intellectuals, artists and journalists argue in an open-letter that has made the rounds recently online.

Argentina's recently appointed ambassador to China, Luis María Kreckler, defends the plan, which would be financed by Chinese capital — to the tune of some $3.5 billion over a two- or three-year period. Speaking from Beijing in late July, soon after his arrival and still in quarantine, Kreckler said it was "crucial" for Argentina in terms of raising the aggregate value of exports.

We do not want to become a pig factory for China or a new pandemics factory.

"Pig farming promotes investments and trained, formal employment," he said. "It also provides accessible, good quality and nutritious protein, and gives added value to primary materials [that Argentina already produces] like corn, soy and other oleaginous crops." Argentine feed crops are already used to raise pigs in Chile, China, Vietnam and in Europe, the ambassador noted.

Kreckler drafted a report for the government in Argentina in which he terms the deal a "federal program that will generate support and liven up the economy." It would raise the aggregate value of Argentine exports and improve its trade balance, he states.

The ambassador also notes that the deal involves the introduction of Chinese-funded technology which can be used to turn production residues into edible suproducts, natural fertilizers and renewal energy. Why, Kreckler asks, should Argentina be deprived of this opportunity to follow a path already taken by China, the United States, Germany and Denmark?

A traditional pork barbecue during the Fiesta de Cordero in Argentina — Photo: Ryan Noble/ZUMA

The agreement is to be signed by the Chinese Agriculture Ministry and Argentina's Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Ministry, and was in fact conceived by the previous, conservative administration. But it is the current, leftist government, led by President Alberto Fernández, that is going ahead with the deal and drawing the wrath of environmentalists as a result.

In their open letter, critics of the project note that the global pandemic "is closely tied to hidden, socio-environmental and production issues" and that like Ebola, bird and pig flu, SARS and other cases of zoonosis "this is a virus that emerged for one of these causes: overcrowding animals in the industrial production or sales process and disintegration of ecosystems that has brought species closer together."

The document deals with a range of themes including the food industry's cruelty to animals. It observes that China suffered a severe outbreak of African swine fever two years back, for which it had to cull 200 million pigs. The letter also notes that the agreement would distance Argentina from its touted goal of food sovereignty.

The Argentine Foreign Ministry insists that there is no environmental risk.

"The industrial production of animals is a cruel and unsustainable agro-industrial model that not only generates local and regional pollution points but nurtures new and highly contagious viruses, and ultimately becomes a manufacturer of new pandemics," the document reads.

The Argentine Foreign Ministry insists that there is "no environmental risk" and argues that with 30% of Argentines living below the poverty line, two-digit unemployment and a pandemic battering the economy, "this is an opportunity not to be lost."

Instead of exporting three tons of corn with a market value of $550, the ministry claims, the country could export one ton of pork meat, worth $2,500. "The project is profoundly rational," it adds.

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