Past the forest-green walls and vibrant orange countertop, the lure of a greasy grill beckons. In one corner, a soda dispenser with all the classics. In another, #BeTheChange painted in graffiti script.
And at the back, over a tabletop made of recycled plastic, Agustín Amarilla bites into a brioche bun seared on top with a smiley face. The patties inside look like beef, even feel and taste familiar, but there isn’t an ounce of red meat here. This is a specially made, legume-based burger, heavy on protein-rich peas.
The 24-year-old web developer was raised on a typical Argentine diet of meat, in a suburb of the capital, Buenos Aires. The tradition of the asado, a barbecue gathering celebrated practically every Sunday, was followed religiously in his family.
But Amarilla says he has long questioned the morality of a diet based on killing animals, leading to him cutting out pork. During one recent lunch hour, he accompanied a friend to Joy Burgers & Plants, said to be Latin America’s first vegan fast-food chain, to try one of their plant-based burgers. Such an outing would have been unheard of just a few years ago, he says.
“Ham sandwiches, choripan [a chorizo sandwich popular in South America] … Everything had meat,” Amarilla says. “A vegan place like this is new, like so many other new things that are incorporated little by little.”
That Joy Burgers & Plants opened in Argentina, a country whose identity is inextricably linked to beef and cattle, is a reflection of changing global dietary patterns – as volatile economies, environmental, health and animal welfare concerns converge. High-income countries that have traditionally been the drivers of meat consumption are seeing their numbers stagnate, while in places like Argentina and neighbouring Brazil, where beef carries important cultural and economic weight, plant-based diets are on the rise.
A survey of 1,000 people commissioned by the Vegan Union of Argentina found that in 2019, 9% of Argentines identified as vegan or vegetarian. A year later, that proportion was 12% – the equivalent of more than 5 million people, while another 12% considered themselves “flexitarian” – someone who has dramatically altered their meat consumption, but not given it up altogether.
“The paradigm of food is changing,” says Matias Cabrera, the co-owner of Joy Burgers & Plants, which opened five outlets in Buenos Aires in the span of six months, and is planning an expansion into Chile. “I think the new generations are giving us a wake-up call in terms of what we should be consuming, and how we should be treating the planet.”
The role of beef
Amid these behavioural shifts, however, it is clear that beef remains important to the dietary choices of large swathes of the planet. In 2022, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecast that worldwide meat production would inch up to 360 million tonnes for the year – up by 1.4% on 2021. Almost 74 million tonnes of that were expected to be beef.
As North America and Oceania cut back on red meat, other countries are seeing consumption rise, according to the FAO, which ties the trend to a jump in income and population. All told, global per capita meat consumption is expected to rise 2% by 2032, a rate similar to the previous decade, the organisation notes.
The FAO says, however, that the environmental impact of beef production, along with the deforestation necessary to raise the cattle, has been driving more consumers to opt for chicken or other options. “Globally, there is a growing trend among consumers to become increasingly sensitive to animal welfare, environmental and health concerns, and poultry has the least carbon footprint,” its 2032 agricultural outlook reads.
Studies have shown that a 50 gram chunk of red meat is associated with at least 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a 100 gram portion of vegetables, and 100 times as much land use.
Economics is another factor. Both Brazil and Argentina have seen per capita consumption of beef decline over the past decade. The changes in consumer behaviour and meat prices in Brazil, the largest exporter of beef in the world, are related to the beef production cycles and increased demand from abroad, says Thiago Bernardino de Carvalho, a livestock researcher at Esalq, the University of São Paulo’s agricultural school.
“Brazilians prefer beef, but if they don’t have the income, they won’t buy it,” says Carvalho.
The trend is visible in Argentina, which has been mired in an economic crisis for several years, struggling with some of the highest inflation in the world, at 124% as of last August. While the amount of beef eaten has been creeping up again, at 53 kg per capita in 2023, it still remains well below the 67 kg seen during the 2007-2009 peak.
On the outskirts of São Paulo, in the favela neighbourhood of Paraisópolis, a small food stand run out of a garage sums up the consistent allure of meat. Here, Erbenes Alves, 43, and Geanes Maria de Souza, 46, sell cuts of roast beef as well as roasted chicken, the latter being their most popular item. Nearby, butchers call out their prices to passers-by, their shops packed to the brim with customers and product.
In the favela, the relationship between prices and consumption is clear and immediate. Alves can measure it not just by sales, but by smoke – when prices are low, the narrow streets are smoky from fired-up barbecue grills. Nonetheless, as a traditional staple, beef is hard to give up for some, even when prices go up: “I’ve never thought of cutting back,” says Cleiton Araújo, a house painter, munching on a churrasquinho, a skewered beef kebab.
Tradition is a hard nut to crack. At a neo-Tudor home in Buenos Aires’ Villa Urquiza neighbourhood, a group of friends mingled around the smouldering coals of a Sunday asado that featured a variety of cuts of beef, chorizo, chicken and vegetables. It wasn’t just a love of meat that brought them together, but the pleasure of being in a community, of commiserating over politics, economics and family travails.
Back in Brazil, in the middle-class São Paulo neighbourhood of Pompéia, Maria Pia Banchieri reflected as she sat with friends, nibbling on iscas de carne, strips of red meat often eaten as a bar snack. “By reducing my meat consumption, I’ve started to eat better,” says the 51-year-old publicist and teacher, who still eats beef two or three times a week, having been raised consuming it daily. “I make lunchboxes, and they’re now much more varied [than my previous diet]. I also feel that my health has improved.”
A changing reality
For Manual Martí, a vegan for 49 years, the shift towards a more plant-based diet is already underway. He founded the Vegan Union of Argentina 20 years ago at a time when, he says, no one knew what being a “vegan” meant. “Finding another vegetarian was like an event,” he says, solemnly.
Now, he calls veganism “the largest revolution in the history of humanity, because it’s something that is global, it’s pacifist, it’s loving, it’s based on an ethical position.” When people start to understand the statistics related to the consumption of animal products, he says, “they become aware, reflect, and change their habits. And that is uncontrollable.”
The availability of information on vegan options, and the transformation in consumer behaviour, is plain to see, says Marti: “Today, after two decades, everyone has a vegan in their family, or in their circle of friends. It’s incredible.”
For Joy Burgers & Plants owner Cabrera, his restaurants are about innovation, not activism. He is not a vegan; one of his two business partners is. But they’re most interested in courting the non-vegan – that experimental consumer who is willing to try something new – and see where it takes them. Their goal is to break with the idea that vegan food doesn’t taste good, and they’re doing it honestly. “We are not a healthy food chain. We recreate the flavours, textures and experiences of the big chains that we knew when we were young,” he says.
“We feel that nobody was born vegan, but they became vegan because of a question of ideals, and because the era of information is way more immediate, ephemeral and constant,” says Cabrera. “We’re looking for a food revolution and we’re inviting everyone.”
This is an abridged version of an article originally published on Diálogo Chino.