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Chinese pork investment sparks criticism in Argentina

As the country seeks to become a pork powerhouse, campaigners warn of grim environmental consequences of proposed pig farms
Argentina could become a pork powerhouse thanks to a large investment from China (Image: Laura Gil Martinez / IAEA, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Argentina could become a pork powerhouse thanks to a large investment from China (Image: Laura Gil Martinez / IAEA, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Argentina hopes to finalise by the end of November an agreement with China to build 25 industrial “pork plants” in the north of the country, thereby doubling its pork exports within six years. But NGOs have sounded the alarm over possible consequences that include deforestation, soil pollution, water depletion and greenhouse gas emissions.

The project represents an investment of about US$3.8 billion, and the government says it could create 50,000 much-needed jobs. The expected annual production would be 900,000 tonnes of pork once all the farms are established, generating US$2.5 million in annual exports.

“We want to take advantage of the corn that we already produce and transform it into pork, all in the same area. They will be establishments with refrigerators and biodigesters, as well as effluent and waste-treatment plants,” said Jorge Neme, secretary of international economic relations at Argentina’s foreign ministry.

Argentina is a minority producer of pork in Latin America, with 95% of the roughly 600,000 tons it produces per year going to the domestic market. So far this year, it has exported 18,000 tons, 60% to China. But the government sees potential for expansion in a country with ample land and grain to feed livestock.

African swine fever has reduced China’s pork production by a fifth, to an estimated 20 million tons, and increased meat prices in the country. To meet demand, China has been importing more. Brazil and Mexico have played a big role as Latin America’s largest producers.

The details of the deal

The signing of the agreement has been delayed, probably until November, due to the last-minute addition of a section on environmental protection. Once both governments finalise the agreement, a first face-to-face meeting would take place at the China International Import Expo in November.

Although it has not yet been made official, a draft of the agreement is already circulating on social media, after being shared by social and environmental organisations. It highlights the close relationship between the two countries and ensures “respect for the environment and laws for the protection of nature.”

Most of the investments will consist of Chinese capital in alliance with Argentine producers. The new pig farms are to be set up in northern provinces such as Chaco, Santiago del Estero and Catamarca, beyond the central region of the country, which today accounts for almost 70% of the pork production.

Argentina currently has 10 industrial pig farms exclusively for export to China, seven of which opened in November 2019. In addition to these, there will be 25 new farms over a period of six years thanks to the investment plan, all with China as their exclusive export destination.

You need 6,000 litres of water for every kilo of pork. Thus, we export meat, but also water.
Soledad Barruti, journalist and one of the promoters of the campaign against the agreement

To achieve the project aim of producing 900,000 tons of pork per year would mean increasing the stock of animals by 10 million and producing an extra two million tons of corn and 750,000 tons of soy for livestock feed, according to estimates by the NGO Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN).

“It will be a production exclusively for China that will not affect the domestic market and will generate employment and added value,” says Juan Uccelli, an engineer and one of the promoters of the agreement. “We are not going to clear forests to set up the farms and we are going to take care of the environment.”

For the Argentine government, the project is an opportunity to generate work beyond large urban centres in regions that have higher unemployment. Similarly, the country would go from selling soybeans and corn to China to selling higher-value pork.

China, for its part, would be able to produce pork less expensively. There are farms in Argentina that today produce at US$0.85 per kilo, while in China the cost is US$1.70, according to Uccelli’s estimates. Even after developing a vaccine for African swine fever it would still be cost-effective for China to import pork.

In any case, swine fever is still far from being solved. The most recently reported case occurred on 24 July, when of 24 pigs being transported in Chongqing municipality, four were sick and one died from the disease.

Growing criticism

Criticism of the Chinese project on environmental grounds is growing daily, as social and environmental organisations argue that the proposed volume of pork production would lead to unprecedented levels of water and soil pollution in Argentina.

“Industrial farms are a danger to humanity and concentrate large areas of potential disease and contamination,” says Soledad Barruti, journalist and one of the promoters of the campaign against the agreement. “You need 6,000 litres of water for every kilo of pork. Thus, we export meat, but also water.”

Barruti and the organisations involved compare the project to the introduction of genetically modified soy in Argentina in 1996. That involved deforestation, agrochemicals and greenhouse gas emissions. Today, GM soy occupies 60% of the country’s arable land.

The intensification of pig production would generate similar results, they say. Added to this are the overcrowded conditions in which the pigs live, the excessive use of antibiotics and the possibility of generating new zoonotic diseases – transmitted from animals to humans.

“The installation of these pig farms in the provinces that have suffered most deforestation in recent decades will generate even more pressure on the forests, because it will significantly increase the demand for maize and soybeans to feed them,” said Hernán Giardini, coordinator of Greenpeace Argentina’s forests campaign.

Investment in Chinese pork would double the greenhouse gas emissions of Argentina’s pork sector, according to FARN estimates. Furthermore, it would require some 12 billion litres of potable water throughout production, not counting water for cleaning.

The investment plan is also being questioned by members of the Argentine pork production chain, who recognise that it excludes the participation of small and medium sized local suppliers of both inputs and the animals themselves. That would be a lethal blow to the production chain, they say.

“Not taking advantage of the investment would be absurd, but to take advantage of it badly would be suicidal,” says Alejandro Lamacchia, a representative of small and medium pig producers in Buenos Aires province. “We can benefit from the agreement or end up being negatively affected, it all depends on the fine print of the deal.”

This article was originally published on Dialogo Chino.