Mega industrial pig farms in Argentina: economic opportunity or socio-environmental catastrophe?

Mega industrial pig farms in Argentina: economic opportunity or socio-environmental catastrophe?

Civil society and environmental organisations protest the macro pig farm project in front of the seat of the government in Buenos Aires. In this image taken on 31 August, several demonstrators wear masks with an image of a pig and the slogan “No to false solutions.”

(AFP/Juan Mabromata)

On 6 July 2020, the Cancillería, Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, headed by Felipe Solá, announced the imminent signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Chinese government aimed at attracting private capital for 25 macro pig farms to be established over the next eight years. The farms would increase Argentina’s pig population to 100 million, 14 times greater than the current number, and allow for the production of nine million tonnes of meat per year for export to China.

The reaction was swift. Barely two weeks after the official announcement, the declaration No queremos transformarnos en una factoría de cerdos para China, ni en una fábrica de nuevas pandemias (‘We Do Not Want to Become a Pig Factory for China or a Factory for New Pandemics’) was published, and has since been signed by over a half a million concerned individuals and organisations, including a wide array of environmental and civil society groups, as well as researchers and journalists.

The manifesto kicked off an intense campaign that culminated on 25 August, when more than 200 socio-environmental organisations in 23 of Argentina’s 34 provinces organised a day of national expression which, while respecting the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, proposed new forms of citizen mobilisation. In response, the Cancillería announced that it would postpone signing the agreement until November. It also modified the data from its initial communication, claiming that it had given the figure nine million tonnes by accident: the figure it meant to give was 900,000. While the President has yet to sign the MoU, this hasn’t stopped the government of the province of Chaco from signing a cooperation agreement with the Chinese company Feng Tian Food to set up 14 large-scale farms with 2,400 sows each.

“The government of Alberto Fernández was surprised by the power of this social movement and backed down on the scale of the project; nevertheless, I believe that their aim is to expand the industry over the years to ultimately become the main exporter of pork to China,” says sociologist Maristella Svampa, co-author of the book 10 mitos y verdades de las megafactorías de cerdos que quieren instalar en Argentina (10 Myths and Truths About the Mega Pig Factories Planned for Argentina).

This agreement with the Chinese authorities would thus represent a major business opportunity for the pig meat industry which already stands to benefit from the European Union–Mercosur free trade agreement (if approved, the trade deal would establish a quota for the import into Europe of pig meat from Argentina and other Mercosur countries). While the quota is not very high (25,000 tonnes per year for the whole of Mercosur), as Svampa argues, it opens the door to expansion. Argentina would go from having a relatively insignificant pork production to being a world power in the sector.

The Cancillería announced the postponement of the signing on its Twitter account on 30 August: “We have updated the Memorandum of Understanding with China to include an article ensuring respect for environmental protection laws, natural resources and biosafety. Its signature will therefore be delayed until November.” The tweet was met with bewilderment and scepticism: “Does that mean that in the beginning there was no consideration at all for compliance with environmental laws?” asks lawyer and food sovereignty activist Marcos Filardi, who criticizes the opacity with which the negotiations are taking place.

Zoonoses and pandemics

“Industrial animal farms are a cruel and unsustainable model and are incubators for new viruses,” adds Filardi. Indeed there is abundant scientific evidence linking zoonotic diseases – i.e. those caused by viruses that, like the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, have jumped from other animal species to humans – to macro farms, where animals live in poor and overcrowded conditions that weaken their immune systems. Given the genetic similarity between pigs and humans, the risk of zoonoses is particularly relevant: recent cases of viral mutations have been documented in China and Brazil.

The animals in such facilities, which are more akin to giant meat factories than to farms, live in abhorrent conditions, which journalist Aitor Garmendia has documented on a number of Spanish farms: lack of mobility, diseases associated with hygienic conditions and overcrowding, and even dead animals left to decompose. As such conditions provide an optimal setting for the proliferation of disease, animals are routinely given high quantities of antibiotics, despite the fact that the scientific community has been warning for years of the risk of bacteria becoming increasingly resistant. If this resistance continues to increase at current rates, it is estimated that by 2050 more than ten million people could die worldwide from infections that would previously have been treated with antibiotics.

The link between large-scale farms and the proliferation of diseases is the very reason behind China’s interest in outsourcing its meat production.

In 2019, an acute outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) forced China to sacrifice between 180 and 250 million pigs. “China tried to secure supplies from neighbouring countries like Vietnam, but an outbreak occurred. The same thing happened in Germany, while Latin America is for the moment free of ASF. China clearly wants to outsource the risks of producing zoonoses while guaranteeing the supply of meat to its population, which is a politically very sensitive issue for the regime,” says Filardi.

Impacts on health and rural labour

Water contamination and health impacts on workers and local populations, including an increase in lung diseases, have been documented in the areas where such large-scale farms have been established. Furthermore, the model is capital-intensive but not employment-intensive, and ends up harming small and medium-sized livestock farmers. Representatives of the sector in Argentina met with Secretary for International Economic Relations Jorge Neme to propose an alternative project which, instead of creating 25 large-scale farms with 12,000 sows a piece, would be based on medium-sized farms, which create more jobs and are more sustainable. Neme’s response: “If Toyota proposes investing in Hilux [an SUV] production in the country, we can’t counter-propose making motorbikes for the poor.”

Moreover, the animals crowded together on large-scale farms are fed soya and maize-based feeds. Indeed, most of the soya exported by Argentina is destined to feed pigs in China and the European Union. Hence the other major risk associated with the project: the expansion of agribusiness in a country where 60 per cent of cultivated land is dedicated to genetically modified soya.

“This model results in agrochemical abuse, fumigated villages, contamination, disease, bacterial resistance, deforestation of native forests and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions: exactly what we don’t want,” says Filardi.

In this respect, social organisations have good reason to be sceptical of Felipe Solá at the head of the Cancillería: he headed the Agriculture Ministry in the mid-1990s, a time when the commercialisation of genetically modified soya seeds was approved and the legal framework that has turned Argentina into one of the world’s leading producers of genetically modified soya was institutionalised.

In response to these concerns, Neme argued that Argentina has an agricultural sector “that has been producing high quality food for years” and that the country’s agriculture is among the “most environmentally friendly” in the world. Svampa responded forcefully: “Neme’s statements are inexcusably cynical. Argentina has a serious socio-environmental problem linked to the soya model. While the area under cultivation has increased by 50 per cent in recent years, the use of glyphosate and other agro-toxins has increased by 1,000 per cent; Argentina leads the world in the use of agro-toxins per capita. This has led to serious health impacts on bodies and territories, as various scientific studies and surveys by doctors in the villages that have been fumigated have documented.”

Popular ecology

Popular mobilisation has continued under the slogan “Not with China or anyone else; not in November or ever.” On 9 November, hundreds of organisations called for a new day of action, which in the city of Buenos Aires included demonstrations in the streets, a festival and a vigil. “What we are seeing is the expansion of a very broad and heterogeneous socio-environmental space, made up of different currents opposed to neo-extractivism and in favour of food sovereignty, land access, animal rights groups, with urban youth throughout the country playing a fundamental role in what we could call a popular ecology movement,” says Svampa.

But while civil society is increasingly mobilising around socio-environmental issues, the Argentinian government, faced with a difficult economic and monetary backdrop, is increasingly committed to seeking foreign trade based on the export of raw materials.

“The government’s official line is that we have to attract dollars to overcome the crisis. But we know that this model is based on the privatisation of profits and the socialisation of losses. This has been demonstrated by the soya model, which has gone hand in hand with a marked trend of land concentration and a reduction in the number of farms,” explains Svampa.

More and more land for agribusiness concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As Svampa concludes, “the mega factory model will benefit large national and Chinese capital but comes nowhere near to benefiting small- and medium-sized producers. The model may be able to generate dollars for a country as needy as Argentina in the short-term, but in the medium-term it will undoubtedly be catastrophic.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.