Argentina’s “great paradox” - selling food abroad, battling hunger at home
The struggles of one of the world’s top food exporters raise timely and worrying questions
*Thanks to Natalia Favre who took the photos and did on-the-ground reporting. Check out her awesome work on Instagram.*
Argentina is famous for many things. Its soccer team, for instance, which won the latest World Cup. Its buzzy, cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires. Its world-famous red wine. Its breathtaking landscapes, particularly in Patagonia. Its tango. Its maté (the traditional herbal drink). Its meat-heavy diet.
These days though, it is famous for another, less flattering, aspect: for having one of the world’s highest inflation rates, the highest of a G20 economy in fact.
When The New Humanitarian published this article last week, as part of the Emerging Hunger Hotspots series I’ve been coordinating, I noted how Latin America's third-largest economy ended 2022 with an inflation of nearly 95%, “the highest in three decades even in a country inured to economic instability”.
Three days ago, on Valentines Day for anyone who’s taking note of these things, the government said the number is now 99%!
No wonder a December report from a university-linked think tank found 17 million people, or 43% of the country, are living below the poverty line.
Mariana, a 45-year-old diabetic divorced mother of one who lives in the capital Buenos Aires, fears becoming part of that statistics after losing a teaching job in November. She already has a full-time job at a state theatre company as an actress but the part-time teaching job kept her family afloat.
She received severance pay but every time prices inch up, that pot of money gets smaller. Mariana also needs to buy insulin every month. Meanwhile, rent has increased and she has unpaid utility bills. But foremost among her worries? How to feed her growing 6-year-old.
“I have to get another job because I can't make ends meet,” she said.
A Chronic Problem
When I started working on this story with Natalia, one thing I tried to do was to square the experience of people like Mariana with Argentina’s role on global food trade.
You see, the South American nation has long been an agricultural powerhouse - it is the world’s biggest soybean oil and meal exporter, the second-largest provider of corn and a key wheat exporter, according to Reuters.
“The great paradox that Argentina offers… is a country with record harvest and record hunger,” said Marcos Ezequiel Filardi, a human rights attorney who founded The Hunger Museum (El Museo del Hambre) in Buenos Aires five years ago.
He was on leave when I reached out to him for the TNH article, but came back just as I was writing this. You can read more about him here.
“Hunger is not only a problem of net food importers, but it can also happen in net exporters of food like Argentina, because the food system (here) is aimed to prioritise commodities destined for exports, sacrificing the food needs of the local people,” he said.
“A great part of our population is malnourished. The consequences are in their bodies…. Full of items (they) could afford in the market, which are actually carbohydrates, sugar, fats.”
The situation is chronic and linked to the nearly 70% of Argentina’s population struggling with obesity and overweight and associated chronic diseases, added Marcos, who set up The Hunger Museum “to seclude hunger in a museum and not find it outside as we are doing right now”.
Other causes for the latest crisis include a lack of strategic vision by policymakers, a history of distorted agricultural policies, three consecutive years of drought, rising global prices and Argentina’s vulnerability to the vagaries of weather. You can read more in the TNH article.
Access vs. Affordability vs. Availability. Again.
Please allow me to repeat my mantra here.
Food security isn’t purely about the availability of food. Crop yields for staples like rice, wheat and corn have been on an upward trend since 1960s. The issue is access and affordability. Can people get to the food? Can they afford it?
Why do I keep banging on about this? Because if we don’t get this right, we’re not going to respond to these crises in the right way.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we will *always* have sufficient food.
This Reuters article that just came out Thursday said Argentinian farmers are considering bankruptcy after a devastating drought, brought about by La Nina, warns of reductions in soy, corn and wheat harvests and cattle herds.
Much of the impact will be for exports but it also means the government will receive less revenue, and therefore less money for social programmes.
This also brings us to another point - when we talk about food insecurity these days, we need to also talk about climate, conflicts, biodiversity, poverty, trade, financial markets, inequality, women’s rights and government regulation because all of that affects hunger and nutrition.
In fact, Marcos pointed to uneven access to land and seeds and the concentration of power in the hands of a few big companies as contributing factors to chronic hunger in Argentina.
Can Agroecology Help?
Marcos is a big advocate for agroecology as a way to keep production local, promote food sovereignty and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture (a whopping 39% in Argentina).
The Hunger Museum, he said, is a place for like-minded people to share these aspirations and create the conditions for food systems transformation.
“Food is not a commodity like others. Food is a human right that the state at all its levels needs to guarantee to all the people.”
Natalia’s interviews with farmers who have switched to agroecology also gave us hope that healthy diets could be both affordable to consumers and profitable for farmers.
If you want to know more about agroecology, have a look at this previous issue.
The farmers in La Plata, a city southeast of Buenos Aires and known as the country’s horticultural belt, made the move after listening to representatives of Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra (The Union of Land Workers or UTT) which started advocating for agroecology nearly a decade ago.
The farmers as well as researchers said demand for agroecologically-produced food grew during the global pandemic. Farmer incomes have also remained steady compared to their neighbours. Inflation is still a problem but they seem to be weathering it better.
In addition, two farmers we spoke to said their health have improved since they abandoned flower production, where they used lots of chemicals such as pesticides.
Javier Paniagua, 41, did not experience these side effects but said he has seen far too many of his friends and neighbours falling ill from repeated and excessive use of chemicals.
Born in Paraguay but living in Argentina for years, he now grows seasonal vegetables - leaves and roots in the winter and fruits in the summer.
“In winter I have 10 varieties and in summer I can have 20,” he said proudly and stressed the importance of not cutting corners.
“The natural process of spinach takes 40 to 50 days, and if I cut that process short, it is not the same. If it is produced in 20 days, instead of eating 100% spinach, I'm eating 30% leaf and 70% water.”
Javier also coordinates UTT’s agroecological nursery, which supplies seedlings to hundreds of like-minded farmers. He also trains others about the practice, which is still quite nascent in Argentina.
“In agroecology, if I do things well, I will produce well. I will have personal benefits - I am not intoxicating myself with chemicals - but I am also providing real food to the consumer. (It’s) thinking not only about myself, but collectively and consciously as a food producer.”
My talk at Reykjavik University
This week, I had the opportunity to speak at Reykjavik University about why we need to reboot our food systems. Here's a recording of the talk in case you’re interested. Thanks Reykjavik University for having me.
Three Good Reads
We are ‘greening’ ourselves to extinction - Al Jazeera
This op-ed by Vijay Kolinjivadi, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Antwerp, is passionately argued and provides a lot of food for thought.
I only wish he had included the URLs to many of the studies he cited, so that I can access the original sources easily.
Which food is better for the planet? - Washington Post
This great interactive piece, based on a 2022 study by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara, goes beyond greenhouse gas emissions and looks at other key issues such as water use, nutrient pollution and habitat disturbance.
You’ll also find some of the data surprising and illuminating.
On International Women’s Day, Reflecting on Gender Inequities - Namukolo Civic
This piece is now nearly 3 years old, but I cam across this short, poignant piece Namukolo had written after I featured her in last week’s newsletter and felt I had to share.
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