Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010


students try belly dancing at an international lunch last semester. Photo by Bob Handelman.

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A Waning National Symbol

A Waning National Symbol
Ojo de Bife, known in the U.S. as rib eye. Photo by Joanna Gillia ´07

The politics of beef in Argentina

By Joanna Gillia ´07

Like most Connecticut College students, I had the chance to study for a semester anywhere in the world. However, outstanding opportunities such as the chance to co-author with one of my professors interfered with my plans to live abroad. Still, stories of my peers´ travels inspired within me a sense of wanderlust that has yet to be quelled. That insatiable desire to travel, and the fact that the majority of my boyfriend´s family still lives in South America, landed me in Argentina this past December. There I quickly became acquainted with what, after four years of studying international relations, I believe to be one of the most telling aspects of a country´s political and social culture: their cuisine.

During my trip to Argentina, I confirmed a hypothesis that I´ve been formulating for years: that the eating habits of a country, especially habits shared by the majority of a population, despite socio-economic status, can speak volumes about a country´s values, circumstances and internal politics. Take Argentine beef, for example. In Argentina, the historic availability and consumption of beef (about 165 pounds of beef per person in 2009, more than double U.S. consumption) by the rich, the poor and all those in between is a source of national pride; beef is a veritable national symbol. And how could it not be, given that just last year in Argentina there were 55 million head of cattle to feed a population of 40 million people?

So, it is no wonder why after just two weeks in Argentina, mainly in Buenos Aires and the province of Córdoba, I became convinced that second only to Catholicism, the de facto religion in Argentina is beef. And not just any kind of beef, but — until recently anyway — beef that is predominantly grass fed, free roaming and, often, free of hormones and antibiotics. From pasture to plate, beef, I learned, is fussed over in a meticulous manner usually reserved for French chefs.

But like many things in Argentina over the past decade, the status of beef as an inexpensive, high-quality national symbol is in a precarious state. As a visitor to Argentina, this fact wasn´t immediately obvious, as I perused with awe the comparatively inexpensive prices for grass-fed beef (about US$2 a pound) at some of Buenos Aires´ finest steak houses and markets.

My awe at the relatively inexpensive prices was quickly crushed as our dinnertime conversation turned political. My boyfriend´s family explained to me that beef prices were expected to rise significantly in 2010 and beyond, for a multitude of reasons, including: beef shortages caused by one of the worst droughts in 70 years; government intervention that taxes beef exports and practically forces the product to be sold domestically, while also keeping domestic retail prices for beef unsustainably low; and the slow takeover of soy as a more profitable crop.

It doesn´t take an economist to see that the aforementioned measures have turned cattle farming in Argentina into an unprofitable venture. Essentially, the measures have forced many Argentine cattle farmers out of the market, or in the eyes of many Argentines, to a practice that might be worse than giving up production entirely — the use of U.S. style feedlots, hormones and antibiotics to inexpensively and more quickly fatten their herds as farmers allocate much of their former grazing land to more profitable crops, like soy. The end result: forecasted beef shortages for the coming years, and higher prices for beef that is of arguably lower quality because it has not been allowed to graze freely, has been fattened on grain and treated with hormones and antibiotics.

Ultimately, what is most disturbing to me is what these shortages and price hikes could do to psyche and the rich culinary traditions of many Argentines who, 10 years after a crippling financial crisis, are still entrenched in the recovery stage, both psychologically and financially. More specifically, what I came to understand through my discussions with native Argentines was that throughout the crisis and the years that followed, Argentine beef remained a dependable source of high-quality protein for all classes, and a comfort for those who took solace in preparing traditional recipes like beef empanadas (stuffed breads), morcilla (blood sausage) and the popular bife de chorizo (sirloin strip steak). At the same time, Argentine beef remained an object of pride for many Argentines, who rightly boasted that their beef was some of the best in the world. Now, with a steep increase in prices and changing farming practices, many are unsure, and rightly so, if the national symbol of Argentina can weather this new crisis and survive, unchanged, into the next decade.

Joanna Gillia ´07, who majored in government, plans to attend a graduate program in international affairs next year. She lives in Canada, where she is studying Spanish at Queen´s University in Kingston, Ontario, and volunteering at a local hospital and rehabilitation home.

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