As I prepared for a recent trip to Argentina, friends and colleagues regaled me with tales of the best beef I would ever eat, and shook their heads with pity when I responded that, as a vegetarian, the only steaks I’d be eating would be made of tofu. But as I set out to find Buenos Aires’s vegetarian underbelly, Argentina was coming to a near standstill in a confrontation that centered on the soybean.
For months, Argentina’s central government and agricultural sector battled over an increase in export taxes announced by President Cristina Kirchner in March, which would have, among other things, changed the export tax rate on soy from a fixed rate to a sliding rate pegged to commodity prices—an increase from about 33% to 44%. The proposal was meant to encourage farmers to diversify their crops and move away from monoculture production of soy, and the increased tax revenues were to be redistributed, Kirchner said, in poverty alleviation programs and food subsidies.
In response, rural organizations comprising both large and small farmers established roadblocks to prevent the transportation of goods to the cities, creating food shortages throughout the country. The central government then introduced compensations for small farmers, including tax rebates, but the rural associations refused to sell goods for export until the proposal was sent to Argentina’s Congress in June. In a stunning defeat for the Kirchner administration, Vice President Julio Cobos cast the deciding vote in the Senate against the measure in July, leading the government to drop the proposal altogether.
So why, in country famous for its beef, was there such a heated struggle over the soybean? The story begins at the height of the neoliberal 1990s, when then president Carlos Menem authorized, for the first time, the production of transgenic soy in Argentina. Today, soy is Argentina’s top export and is the most widely planted crop in the country—taking up more than half of Argentina’s agricultural land, according to most estimates. Cattle ranching, that most Argentine of enterprises, has lost more than 12 million acres to soybeans in the last five years alone. Enormous monoculture soy plantations—between 95% and 99% planted with genetically modified variations bought from Monsanto and other multinationals—now dominate the countryside.
What many now consider an “Argentine model” of soy production has emerged, combining financialization and large-scale monoculture, and it is spreading to other countries in the region. Soy prices are so high that many small farmers have simply sold or leased their land to large agribusinesses and financial speculators, increasing the prevalence of the “growing pools” that dominate Argentina. Indeed, the financial and agribusiness firms are increasingly one and the same: Some of the largest agricultural interests in Argentina, like Los Grobo and El Tejar, own no land at all—they lease all of it from small- and medium-size farmers.
This has meant that as the price of land suitable for soy production has risen dramatically in the last few years, so has the cost of living in the countryside. And genetically modified soy is among the least labor-intensive crops, leading some to call soy farming “agriculture without farmers.” One obvious result has been large-scale displacement of campesinos at the new “soy frontier” in provinces like Chaco, Salta, and Santiago del Estero.
But another, perhaps even more serious, consequence is looming. As both the food and financial crises show no signs of abating, the paradox of this meat-loving country’s devotion to soy production becomes clear: In a country that is the third-largest producer of soybeans in the world, no one eats the stuff. Indeed, the transgenic variety of soy that takes up more than half of Argentina’s agricultural land isn’t suitable for human consumption; most of it is bound for livestock feedlots in Europe and Asia. As the political essayist Raúl Zibechi recently commented, “The region is being placed in its position in an international division of labor, as provider of agricultural commodities as feed for factory fed animals in the northern hemisphere.” With the degradation of soil and groundwater, the loss of forested land, and the displacement of campesinos together with increasing inflation and financial instability, this new Argentine model may prove disastrous.
During the crisis, many on the left argued that the increase in export taxes would have done little to reverse this situation, and that the revenues generated would have only transferred wealth from one sector of capital to another. But while Argentines now celebrate the end of the battle between the campo and the government, it is the soy industry that has emerged as the clear winner in the fight. It is now uncertain what the Kirchner administration, reeling from this defeat, will now be able to do to stop the march of transgenic soy across the country.
Christy Thornton is NACLA’s director and publisher.