Sustainability in the land of beef

29 August 2017

Sirloin steak in an Argentinian parrilla

Argentina is famous for a few things, but one of them is inescapably the pre-eminence of beef in the diet of its inhabitants.

It’s a fame pretty solidly rooted in fact. In 2016, the average Argentinian consumed 120 pounds of beef. By way of comparison, that other meat-addicted nation the United States managed just under two-thirds of that at 79 pounds per person. In fact, a few decades ago Argentinian consumption was approximately double what it is today, so things are less extreme than they used to be.

Nevertheless, once you visit Argentina, the first food-thing you end up doing is going to one of the parrillas and getting a medallon del lomo or bife de chorizo. Preferably to be washed down with some full-bodied Malbec of course. I’ve done that particular dance every time I’ve visited - and this week is no exception. The first time I experienced one of these Argentinian slabs of beef, I described it to friends as “not so much a steak, more two cows stitched together”. Not much has changed on that score.

It’s not just about the quantity though. I can safely say that the best three steaks I’ve had have all been at Argentinian restaurants - even if one of those was actually located in London. Quality and quantity is a rare thing.

The majority of beef cattle in Argentina are now no longer grass-fed

But that gives us a problem, doesn’t it? Beef is one of those things we need to be eating less of, both because we need to keep a careful check on how much red meat we’re consuming for our health and also because the cattle industry makes a significantly higher contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than many other sources of food. That being the case, one would expect that Argentina’s profile as a contributor to climate change would be a problematic one, and the national beef obsession would be the main reason.

Well, partly true. But as with so many things in this area, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Yes, Argentina’s current plan for making its contribution to curbing emissions has been rated as unsatisfactory. Yes, the cattle industry is contributing significantly to the total, and is projected to increase its emissions by 30% in the next 15 years. However, those headline numbers cover other significant changes out of sight that are quite relevant and interesting. 

For one thing, the traditional beef cows of days gone by were fed on healthy Argentinian grassland. One hundred percent natural grass-fed beef might still have the methane emissions to contend with, but otherwise it was a pretty efficient system in terms of converting sunlight to protein - as much a non-vegetarian source can be. Such animals would probably not be fed the antibiotics or hormones that have become common bad habits in commercial meat production. The grasslands would not be eroded with intensive use of fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

In Argentina, conservationists have argued that the old system was more inherently sustainable, and certainly better suited to the nature of the Pampas grasslands, than what has replaced it.

Because the majority of beef cattle in Argentina are now no longer grass-fed. The land has been converted to grow soybeans and corn, which is often used to make animal feed. Indeed, Argentina has become one of the main global exporters of soy and corn, with a lot of it going to China to be used to feed a huge upsurge in - you guessed it - meat-eating.

It’s the economics that has driven it. Crops give payback on investment in a single season. Cattle doesn’t. So the cows have been pushed off the land into smaller spaces and for that to work, you need feedlot. And then you’re using energy to convert agricultural produce into animal feed.

Of course, not everybody has yet abandoned the old ways. And if we believe that world-wide sustainable eating habits will come about because people adapt their diets - less but better meat - then the highest quality grass-fed Argentinian beef could well be the model that gets followed. Assuming such a thing survives the changes of the next twenty years.

But so far, most Argentinians remain unaware of the changes, and uninformed about the difference. Grass-fed beef is sold alongside feedlot beef without comment, labelling or price differential. Many Argentinians would assume that all their beef is still grass-fed and have no eye for the signs that distinguish the two in terms of meat quality, fat marbling and so on.

That could change, and of course there are chefs in Argentina championing the cause of quality and traditional modes of production. We’ve seen how the growing interest in food quality and provide the lever for change in valuing best practice in food production. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could happen here as well.

Might still need to have a conversation about portion size, though, in the wonderful and enthusiastic parrillas of Buenos Aires.