Change on the Pampas: Industrialized Farming Comes to Argentina

By Nicholas Kusnetz, NACLA

Outside the town of Villegas, in the western Argentine Pampas, the land appears as a tri-colored patchwork in mid-summer. There’s the deep green of corn leaves, the lighter green soybeans, and the straw colored stubble of corn stalks that have been sprayed with pesticides after harvest. That’s just about it for as far as the eye can see, which in this case is far. The land is flat—it rises 25 centimeters for every kilometer as it reaches the foothills of the Andes. But if you’re familiar with how this land has looked for decades, you realize there’s something missing: pasture.

For the better part of the last 60 years, these lands have been worked in a rotation of grass and grain, with the sun as the system’s main fuel and cattle as its central engine. Leguminous grasses like alfalfa fix nitrogen into the soil while converting sunlight into a rich diet for the world-famous herds, which produce some of the most coveted meat in the world. The system anchors the region’s sandy soil. As the cattle graze, their manure returns much of the fertile soil’s nutrients. Then, after a few years of grazing, the land can be rotated back into crop production, since the pasture’s deposit of nutrients will be able to sustain a couple of years of crops. The system also gives farmers two sources of income, grains and cattle, protecting them from price shocks in either market. This coexistence produces one of the largest scale practices of sustainable agriculture in the world.

Yet outside Villegas, the cattle and the grass are being removed from the system. The biggest herd I saw was packed into a feedlot with capacity for 10,000 head. Across the more than 120 million acres of the Pampas, grass is being torn up and the land planted in genetically modified soy. The cattle are being pushed into feedlots or sent north and west to lands too poor to grow crops, just as happened in the U.S. corn-belt decades ago. And, as in the United States, as the cattle move out, industrial farms growing fewer and fewer crops with more and more pesticides and fertilizers are taking their place. The very nature of Pampean agriculture—which along with the gaucho myth lies at the heart of Argentine consciousness—is changing.

“Having shipped the last cattle and sprayed the last alfalfa field, I have decidedly changed course,” said Max Van Tuyll, a farmer with 6,600 acres about 70 miles south of Villegas. Van Tuyll’s herd has dwindled to some 350 head, down from about 3,000 a few years ago.

He said he has been pushed in this direction by forces out of his control. Markets, technology, and the government—especially the government, he and all ranchers say—have made his decisions for him.

A group of activists and academics blame this “soyazation” for a legion of problems, including the loss of small and mid-sized farms, deforestation in the north, and soil depletion and desertification in the Pampas. Meanwhile, the country’s farmers are becoming more dependent on fertilizers and pesticides.

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