Could the Economic Disaster Turn Meat-Loving Argentines Vegan? | OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because high prices for meat and milk can convert people to veganism.

When Manuel Martí stopped consuming animal products in 1974, everyone around the then-18-year-old thought he was crazy. In meat-obsessed Argentina, veganism was practically a foreign concept.

Meat, mainly steaks, and the Sunday asados (charcoal barbecues) are an intrinsic part of the country’s culinary culture. Most dishes that make up the typical Argentine’s diet contain some form of animal products. In 2016, the South American country was the world’s second-largest beef consumer per capita, after Uruguay.

But last July, the word “vegan” made its way onto most newspaper front pages when a group of young protesters disrupted the livestock show of the Argentine Rural Society, holding large yellow banners demanding “animal freedom,” as local gauchos on horses tried to disperse them. For vegan activists to hold such protests isn’t uncommon, even in meat-loving nations where they draw little response. Yet in Argentina, the attention that the protestors got captured a quiet but dramatic shift that’s underway.   

Vegan activists and gauchos face off at the Argentine Rural Society livestock show.

Six out of every 10 Argentines are considering giving up beef and going vegan, according to a recent study by the country’s Institute for the Promotion of Beef. Martí, now 63 and head of the Argentine Vegetarian Union, remembers that, in 2000, he knew only one other vegan. A poll his organization commissioned found that 9 percent of Argentina’s population is either vegetarian or vegan at the moment.  

Prices have gone up so much.… We eat meat way less often.

Marina Otamendi, mother of a 5-year-old

Finding a vegetarian or vegan restaurant is no longer a challenge, at least in the country’s main cities. Buenos Aires alone has at least 70 exclusively vegan restaurants. The capital’s colorful walls are plastered with messages and banners demanding the protection of animals and the yearly VeganFest is becoming increasingly popular. Many local celebrities are turning their backs on animal products (soccer megastar Lionel Messi has said he switches to a vegan diet during tournament season).

Health concerns and worries about climate change — drivers of veganism globally — are playing out in Argentina too. But there’s an additional factor pushing people away from meat and animal products: the country’s economic crisis and nearly 50 percent annual inflation. The latest report from Argentina’s Chamber of Commerce for Beef and Its Derivatives found that consumption of meat products has decreased to its lowest point in the last 50 years.

“Prices have gone up so much.… Sunday barbecues are not a ‘thing’ like they used to be. It’s just too expensive,” says Marina Otamendi, who lives in Buenos Aires and has a 5-year-old son. “We eat meat way less often and have replaced it with other things, including more beans.”

The prices of meat, milk products and eggs have risen the highest over the past year among all food items, on an average across Argentina, according to the country’s National Statistics and Censuses Institute, making them prohibitively costly for many families.

Adrian Bifaretti, head of marketing at the Institute for the Promotion of Beef, acknowledges that the economic crisis is one of the reasons for the drop in the consumption of animal products. But there are other reasons too, he says.

Animal Rights Activists Demonstration

Vegans from the group Earthlings Experience show hands covered with fake blood in Buenos Aires, where they were demanding animal protection laws.

Source Ricardo Ceppi/Getty

“Changes in lifestyle are becoming factors when choosing what to eat, particularly for young people,” Bifaretti says. “Young people are now more interested in what they are eating, how it is produced, its quality, how it affects the environment.” He insists vegetable-based diets don’t provide the same nutrients as meat-based ones.

At the other end of the spectrum, vegan activists are appealing to the consciences of those who will listen. “We want people to question what is behind the beef burger they are considering eating: the ill treatment of animals, of workers, all those injustices. We are all animals,” says Erika De Simoni, an activist from Voicot, the organization behind the posters plastering cities like Buenos Aires.

Despite their newfound visibility, and the number of people joining their cause, “being vegan in Argentina is still very hard,” Martí says. “Many vegan kids are bullied in school, even abused by teachers.” In a particularly infamous case, a young boy in the province of San Luis was bullied for years at school for being vegetarian. His parents have now taken the school authorities to court. Meanwhile, it’s still hard for vegans to find adequate food options in hospitals and canteens, Martí says.

It’s also unclear whether some of the recent converts will switch back to meat when prices stabilize.

De Simoni, who lives in a small town an hour’s drive from Buenos Aires and became vegan eight years ago, is more positive. “We are seeing a lot of people organizing to produce and sell vegan products, food, clothes, all kinds of things,” she says. “We need to get over this idea that Argentina is just about meat and beef.”

Martí says fighting discrimination is their big next battle. His organization is working with the National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism to pass a new law to protect vegans, particularly children. “There are more vegans in Argentina than members of many political parties,” he says. “If we realized that, we could change many things that are still needed.”