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Rural countryside of Argentina

How simple, rural products changed Argentina’s history

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, global trade forged new economic alliances and contributed to the emergence of modern ways of life. Emerging from the backwater as one of the world’s major agricultural producers, Argentina’s export-oriented agricultural sector, producing simple products like beef, wool, soybeans, and wheat, propelled its economy and established the nation as the third largest economy in Latin America.

With globalization and industrialization came both freedom and dependency, as Argentina shed the persistent stereotype that the country was simply a collection of farms and ranches. The “Golden Age” ushered in a surge of immigration from southern Europe and elsewhere between 1875 and 1913, while at the same time, the average real per capita incomes grew by 40% and consumption within the nation is estimated to have increased as high as 900%. Rural and urban life blurred into a hybrid culture that thrived on export commodities and domestic consumption.

To further illustrate how the urbanization of simple rural products shaped the culture and history of Argentina, we compiled facts from Eduardo Elena’s article “Commodities and Consumption in ‘Golden Age’ Argentina” that help demonstrate how globalization had such an impact on Argentina from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th.

1. While Argentina’s relatively simple raw products, such as cattle hides, grease and tallow, salted meats, and sheep’s wool may seem crude, these materials were coveted by the most advanced manufacturing sectors of England, northern Europe, and the United States. Greater mechanization and mass production there created demand for imports such as animal skins, which could now be transformed on an unimagined scale into goods like leather shoes.

2. Globalization and industrialization led to selective husbandry of specific species of animals. Nature was transformed to keep up with changes in foreign demand: sheep breeds valued primarily for their wool gave way to stock more suited for their meat; “rangy” criollo cattle were replaced by “improved” pedigree breeds to supply the types of beef coveted by European consumers; and even the grasses of the plains were made over, either into fields of alfalfa for more refined animals or into massive grain farms.

3. Despite their seeming invisibility to most consumers (especially those located abroad), temperate staples became referents in political disputes over consumption and related aspects of economic distribution, social inequality, and national development. The fact that a given ton of wool or wheat came from Argentina may have mattered a great deal to importers and factory owners, who were attuned to differences in quality and price. But customers who purchased finished goods were typically unaware of the origins of the fibers in their clothes or the wheat in the bread purchased at the corner bakery. Moreover, in the European markets where demand was greatest for Argentine commodities, temperate staples were considered so familiar that they were hardly noticed. Imported animals and plants were considered widely “European”—not “Argentine” (or “Canadian” or “Australian,” for that matter).

4. While having a strong reputation as a producer of rural commodities in the twentieth century, Argentina was one of the most urbanized societies in the world at the time. The explanations behind this seeming contradiction lie partly in the characteristics of modern commodity production. The sheer scale of ranching and farming, coupled with greater uses of mechanization and steam-age transportation, ensured that fewer and fewer people were required to generate an enormous surplus of tradable goods.

Soybean field in the Proivince of Buenos Aires, Argentina
“Sembrado de soja en Argentina” by Alfonso. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Efforts to define a shared national identity through food were one way Argentinians addressed the culture tension between the rural and urban in exporting commodities and consuming products domestically. Cultural efforts to mediate these changes were exemplified by the “asado” (a feast of grilled meats, especially beef, similar to a barbeque). Although this custom has centuries-old roots in the region, the asado became reworked during the first half of the 20th century in keeping with new ideas of national identity, or “argentinidad”. The act of grilling meat took on gendered and racialized meanings as well, as the masculine figure of the mythic gaucho was reborn in his white male descendant, the “asador”.

A closer look, however, reveals that the “asado,” as practiced by an increasing majority of Argentinians, was more a reflection of an urban, industrializing society than timeless rural customs. The updated version depended on a distinctly modern-day separation between work and leisure and related habits of sociability. The cut of meat that became the centerpiece of the ritual—the “asado de tira” (short rib)—was itself an artifact of the industrial age: only electrical saws adopted in the 1900s could easily cut meat in this fashion, and the meat came from more tender “improved” breeds of cattle. Nevertheless, these realities were disregarded: instead, the “asado” became a way that residents of the modern city and countryside could celebrate their shared ties to a distant, romanticized rural past, one that now defined what it meant to be authentically Argentinian.

6. With global trade, country names became consumer brands. Members of landowner organizations such as the Sociedad Rural Argentina nervously strategized about how to beat competitors, who began using marketing slogans like “New Zealand Lamb, Best in the World.”

7. While industrialization has greatly contributed to wealth in Argentina, the process of deindustrialization that started during the 1970s has also contributed substantially to the nation’s economy. Deindustrialization made commodity exports more valuable as a source of foreign exchange and taxable state revenue.

New export goods such as Malbec wine and apples destined for markets in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have created additional riches from the 1990s onward.

Featured image credit: “Countryside of Argentina” by Douglas Scortegagna. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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