A government-sponsored plan to turbocharge Argentina’s hog industry with Chinese capital is generating unprecedented resistance among its supposed beneficiaries – the Argentinian general public.
Nearly 400,000 people have signed petitions opposing the move. “We never had such a huge response before,” said environmental lawyer Enrique Viale, one of the group who banded together last month to challenge the government’s initiative. His petition currently has 200,000 signatures; another on change.org has almost 120,000 additional signatures, and three separate petitions on the same platform have clocked up another 55,000 between them.
The plan to turn Argentina into one of China’s main pork suppliers is being sold to the public by authorities as a $3.5bn (GBP2.7bn) investment that will generate $2.5bn in annual pork exports and provide 9,500 new jobs.
China hopes that South American pork can make up for its bruising losses after the recent spread of African swine fever (ASF) through its own hog herd, killing millions of animals. A survey of 1,500 Chinese pig farms last year showed that 55% had abandoned plans to raise pigs again because of the risk of future disease.
Chinese and Argentinian officials are hammering out a framework to turn Argentina into a pork powerhouse with the installation of 25 hog farms of about 12,500 sows each to supply China’s growing appetite for pork.
This would practically double Argentina’s current 350,000 sows and boost production from 700,000 yearly tonnes today to 900,000 tonnes in four years’ time. Each plant will be an integrated installation, from the processing of grain for animal feed to hog rearing, slaughterhouse and packaging.
But the ASF precedent does not sit well with local environmentalists. “You could almost say China is outsourcing the risk of a repetition of such outbreaks by moving production offshore,” said biologist Guillermo Folguera.
With Argentina in the grip of a rapidly escalating coronavirus situation – the country now ranks sixth worldwide in the number of daily new cases – many Argentinians are wary of the health risk posed by industrial-scale pig farming. “Hog farms produce pathogens, bacteria and viruses that can pass from animals to humans,” Folguera said.
Environmental author Soledad Barruti, who delivered the 200,000 signatures to foreign ministry officials handling the China negotiations, said: “Public sensibility is heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, which just happens to have originated from animal contagion. So it’s not surprising, considering how large-scale intensive pig farming is already associated in the public’s mind with the spread of diseases, that so many are rejecting the idea.”
Pigs have a unique capacity to incubate viruses that can bounce between humans, birds and pigs, swapping genes in a process called “reassortment”, which is why hogs are considered potential “mixing vessels” for deadly future pandemics by some epidemiologists.
Argentina’s authorities, however, are adamant no such risks exist. “We’ve had a number of meetings with small producers and environmental organisations; we’ve got nothing to hide,” said Jorge Neme, the foreign ministry’s international economic relations secretary who received the petition from Barruti last week, in a recent interview with the government newsagency Telam.
Neme responded to criticism that the national environment ministry had not been involved in the negotiations, saying environmental considerations would be addressed once concrete individual projects were on the table. “That’s when everything that has to do with ecological and sanitary considerations will be assessed,” he said.
The Argentinian government sees the China hog deal as an opportunity to turn its main exports – maize and soybean, sold principally as animal feed to China and Europe – into a value-added product.
“Ideally we would stop selling animal feed for the animals of others and start feeding our own animals to sell meat cuts around the world instead,” Argentina’s president Alberto Fernandez said during a Council of the Americas online conference after the potential agreement with China was announced last month.
Meeting China’s target would require hundreds of thousands of additional hectares to be turned over to maize and soybean crops, likely adding to Argentina’s runaway deforestation in its fragile Gran Chaco forest, the second largest forest in South America after the Amazon, according to Farn, an environmental and natural resources foundation based in Buenos Aires.
Another main concern is that Argentina’s weak environmental laws are not up to the task of dealing with mighty agroindustrial corporations. “Argentina doesn’t even have a national environmental law,” said Maria Di Paola, an economist at Farn. “This means that each of the plants will be under not federal control, but under the weaker control of provincial authorities.” So far those authorities have failed to control the the fires that started raging in February in the vast delta of the Parana River, decimating the wildlife in one of Argentina’s most important natural habitats.
“Generating thousands of new jobs may be tempting, but the truth is we don’t know what the societal, environmental and health costs for neighbouring districts and the population in general will be,” said Di Paola.
But China’s proposal has been warmly welcomed by Argentina’s authorities, eager to rescue the country from its perennial economic woes and from the additional downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to increase exports by $25bn a year,” foreign minister Felipe Sola, who is heading the negotiations with China, tweeted this week.