Your burger is eating Argentina's small towns

Many of us have heard about the unsustainable global consumption of meat. In the ongoing discussion surrounding how to preserve our natural resources, words like "sustainable" and "unsustainable" can be thrown around haphazardly and at times make little sense. But when it comes to our meat habits, there's no reading between the lines. The amount of beef and pork we eat quite simply cannot be sustained by our limited natural resources.

Many of us also know that soy is the number one feed crop for pigs and cattle. The extreme demand for pork and beef necessitate massive amounts of soy. But what's the social impact of beef and pork dependence? What do buzz terms like "GMO" (Genetically Modified Organism) and "mono-cropping" (growing only one crop on a given bit of land) really mean for the people living and working in (and rapidly leaving) small rural communities in countries where soy is produced? 

A research group at the University of Oslo looked at how GM soy production is changing rural towns in Argentina, drawing from fieldwork conducted over the span of more than 40 years. Of course, the story is more complex than just soy. Rural-to-urban migration has been going on for far longer than 40 years, and results largely from epidemic disparities in infrastructure and provision of services between cities and rural areas. But the case of soy in Argentina shows how unrestricted meat consumption feeds inequality while chipping away at communities that grew out of farming - communities that are now arguably dying.

Dr. Kristi Anne Stoelen focused on the GM soy cultivation that has come to dominate in the Santa Fe region of Argentina. Crops are glyphosate resistant and Roundup Ready (genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup). They do not require tilling, leading to reduced labor demands and fuel costs. At least throughout the duration of the research project at UiO, seeds were cheap. Companies advanced inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) to soy farmers, which they paid back after harvest.

The result was a rapid expansion of soy production. The Asociación de la Cadena de la Soja (ACSOJA) reported that Argentina produced 4.8 million hectares of soy in 1990, according to the Inter Press Service. In 1996, the GM revolution took hold, and the hectares devoted to soy ballooned. This trend was strengthened in 2008, partially due to a conflict between the Argentinean government and agribusiness. Today, 31 million hectares are devoted to soy production in Argentina.

There has been a corresponding reduction in crops critical to national food security. Soy is cheaper to produce than wheat and maize, and not subject to the same regulatory risks. As a result, it has replaced substantial hectarage of the aforementioned food crops, in addition to spurring the disappearance of pasture in favor of feed lots.

Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council reported that soy has also led to a decline in sunflower, fruit and vegetable production. This has correspondingly driven up the prices of produce.

And of course, soy production has spread to new areas, pushing people off their land and reducing biodiversity.

Aside from threatening food and livelihood security, mono-cropping soy reduces output; rotating soy with maize leads to an estimated 20% increase in productivity. Mono-cropping also leads to soil degradation, which increases vulnerability to pest infestations and diseases. Finally, mono-cropping contributes to pollution, compromising human health.

The GM soy revolution has led to a concentration of land in the hands of a few, which has been accompanied by an increase in land prices. Farmers have responded in a few ways to the demands of the market, some by going into agribusiness, others by farming part-time, and many by abandoning their land altogether. 

As is the case in many crops and in many countries, many remaining farmers have become managers, living in towns and hiring administrators and laborers to deal with the day-to-day processes of running and working their land. 

Dr. Stoelen describes a GM soy dominated countryside in which many rural communities have become shells of their former selves. Shops, restaurants, and bars have closed. Churches are vacant and unused. Common areas and sports fields are overgrown. Only the schools remain, to educate the children of local laborers. Rural workers, however, are often underemployed. So-called "poverty belts" have developed around towns. Many would-be farm workers are unable to find employment and depend heavily on government subsidies.

And ironically, while GM soy is pulling the ground out from under the Argentinean countryside, it is simultaneously funding the government social programs that disenfranchised farmers and underemployed workers critically depend on. 

Let's start thinking across national borders every time we choose to buy (and hopefully, start choosing not to buy) meat products.