A Farewell to Pigs…Changes in the National Diet
How has the Nicaraguan diet evolved in recent years?
For various reasons, people are switching from pork to chicken, while also clearly reducing their consumption of animal proteins.But is it true that what sells well is always the best for us?
José Luis Rocha
One thing’s for sure, there’s a big difference between eating well and not eating well. Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are… not to mention what you’ll probably end up being, your life expectancy, what kind of illnesses you’ll develop, the medical costs implied, your work performance, your learning curve and much more besides. In these days of transnational empires, free trade agreements and excessive zeal for private ownership in all its tangible and intangible forms, we urgently need to learn about our past and present gastronomic, livestock, zoological, botanical and medicinal culture, to avoid being swamped by a logic that optimizes the economic yields of a minority and gets the rest of us eating what is sold, regardless of its nutritional value.
Nicaragua is Central America’s most vegetarian countryHow has the Nicaraguan diet evolved? What is it leaving behind and what is being included? Why has it changed and where is it heading? Can the changes only be detected over the long term? How many volumes does the oral encyclopedia of our local wisdom contain on vegetable- and animal-based foods? These are very ambitious questions, but we have lot riding on the answers.
Statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that our daily per-capita protein intake is 8.4 grams lower than 30 years ago. We have reduced our intake of specifically animal protein even more over the same period, consuming almost 14 grams less today. Nicaragua used to be a very carnivorous country: in 1971, we got 38% of our proteins from animals, compared to 24% in nearby El Salvador. By 2001 there had been a complete turnaround: animals were the source of 26.6% of El Salvador’s proteins, while Nicaragua was obtaining just 21% of its proteins from animals. This actually contradicts the theory that densely populated countries have a less carnivorous diet than those with a low population density; after all, El Salvador has 309 inhabitants per square kilometer and Nicaragua just 36. These figures also show that Nicaragua has become the most vegetarian country in Central America despite being its least densely populated.
Although we are genetically programmed to eat meat, anthropologist Marvin Harris recognizes that our species’ physiology and digestive processes predispose us to acquire a preference for animal-based foods by means of a learning process. According to Harris, humans and the primates related to us attach special importance to such foods because they are exceptionally nutritious. Meat is a more concentrated source of essential amino acids, which are a component of proteins, than any vegetable-based food.
Let’s talk about pigs: “Sublime in the meat they give” Let’s concentrate on one aspect of the evolution of the Nicaraguan diet to show how quickly food habits can change. Let’s talk about pigs, those animals that according to Nobel Literature Laureate José Saramago turn into snouty and smelly lovers of the pigsty once they have lost the grace with which they were born, that air of pink caramel color, leaving them sublime only in the meat they will give.
The verified flagging consumption of pork in Nicaragua is one of those transformations that tend not to hit the front pages, despite its notable consequences. In 1971, Nicaraguans consumed a daily average of 23 calories and 1.9 grams of protein from pork and just 9 calories and 0.7 grams of protein from chicken. But everything had changed by 2001, when we obtained just 5 calories and 0.4 grams of protein from pork and 47 calories and 3.5 grams from chicken.
How do such changes in eating habits come about? They don’t require the passing of centuries; only a few decades are needed for a whole country’s diet to undergo substantial changes. The case of pork in Nicaragua is a paradigmatic example. The pig—an inveterate source of animal protein with enough virtues to require little other marketing—is an essential component of several of Nicaragua’s most popular dishes. These include vigorón (a vinegary cabbage and cassava salad topped with chunks of fried pig skin), nacatamal (a large tamale traditionally filled with pork), chancho con yuca (fried pork and cassava) and a black pudding know as moronga.
In addition, lard—a recognized source of energy—was an essential cooking ingredient for many years, giving Nicaraguan fried beans their exquisite taste, for example. In his book on Nicaraguan cuisine, La comida nicaragüense, Jaime Wheelock says that lard provided the possibility of frying foods and therefore led to a new way of cooking that would later become popularized, allowing new dishes to be created and above all imposing a new taste on Nicaraguan cooking. The fried-food revolution in Nicaragua was based on the use—and abuse—of lard.
Pigs and maizeWheelock writes that as early as 1541, Girolamo Benzoni was surprised to find many Spanish kinds of pigs in Nicaragua. They had been brought over from the Iberian Peninsula and quickly spread across Nicaragua thanks to their adaptability, quick reproduction, easy handling and the diversity of products they provided (pork, pig hide, lard).
But there was another reason why they spread so rapidly. According to Marvin Harris, maize and pigs made a very happy marriage. Pigs turned out to be five times more efficient than cattle in turning maize into meat. Pigs could therefore be allowed to forage for most of their lives in the free pasture provided by the undergrowth, then be fattened up with surplus maize until they reached a marketable weight. And doing so provided much higher yields than could be achieved applying similar methods to cattle.
The marriage was a two-way affair: not only were pigs the most avid consumers of maize, but pork turned out to be a wonderful and nutritious complement for Nicaraguan maize-based dishes. Pork mixed with boiled cornmeal is an ideal combination that preserves the proteins in the meat, turning them into muscle mass or an organic regulator.
In a relatively short time, writes Wheelock, the barnyard fowl and pigs introduced by the Spanish started to replace game and even fish, due to their greater accessibility. Omnivorous and easy to handle, these new animals gave a greater yield of protein foodstuffs with much less effort than the uncertain and complicated effort invested in hunting and fishing. Wheelock adds that in this way the indigenous peoples were fortunately able to conserve some of their oldest and most succulent food mixes, such as the tamale, selectively enriching them with Spanish products and condiments, such as pork, garlic and onions.
And because what is good to eat also provides material for thinking and talking, the pig entered into popular Nicaraguan sayings: “Every pig has its Saturday” (your day will come), “What’s good for the boar is good for the sow” (what’s good for the goose is good for the gander), etc.
After centuries of success, the pig is losing groundAfter centuries of success, our pork consumption has plummeted in recent years. In 1961, we were consuming almost 4 kilograms per person per year. This peaked in both 1970 and 1979 to 7.4 kilograms a year, but then began to drop until between 1997 and 2001, the last five years covered by FAO data, we consumed less than 1.3 kilograms per person per year.
How much pork do we eat compared with other countries? For the last 40 years the United States has maintained its average consumption of 29 kilograms per person per year, while neighboring Honduras, with a current consumption of 2.6 kilograms, is well below the 4.1 kilograms of its pork-eating heyday (1963-1970), but only barely below its average for the last 40 years (3 kilograms). El Salvador, too, has higher pork consumption than Nicaragua—almost 2 kilograms—despite its relatively weak pork-eating tradition. And this isn’t about Salvadorans using pork to compensate for skimpy beef consumption because pig rearing is more compatible with a high population density, as demonstrated by China. The fact is that in 2001, Salvadorans ate an average 2.3 kilograms more beef per capita than Nicaraguans.
Nicaragua’s downward trend is not just in consumption. The country’s pig herd is also in decline. In 1961, there were 237 pigs for every 1,000 Nicaraguans, and in 1970 we peaked with 290 pigs per 1,000 inhabitants. In 2002, however, with 78.55 per 1,000, we dropped to our lowest point since 1994, when the rate bottomed out at 76.76.
Nicaraguan pig exports and imports are currently quite paltry. Although Nicaragua has never been a major pig importer, there was a time when it exported a lot of them—an annual average of 28,000 between 1970 and 1979. The best year was 1976, when 51,625 pigs were exported. But all of that has been consigned to history.
Nicaragua currently exports cattle more than anything. In 2000 and 2001, we exported over 100,000 head of cattle, a figure only bettered—tripled, in fact—in 1979, a year with a very special set of circumstances due to the end of the war against Somoza and the start of the revolution. Nowadays, Nicaraguan beef sells very well and is helping pay off our foreign debt.
Pigs: Between fear and desireMany reasons are offered for the decline in pig consumption, breeding and exportation. Is urbanization behind the change? In 1950, 65% of Nicaraguans lived in rural areas, while today 60% lives in cities, where it is not exactly customary to raise pigs. Nonetheless, studying the figures in greater depth reveals that the decline in pig production is relatively recent and urbanization was already underway during the pig’s golden years and was no obstacle in 1970, when the country achieved its highest pig density relative to the national population, or in 1976, the year the country exported the most pigs.
The decline in the pig population and exports could also be the effect of flagging demand. This is in turn the combined result of fears and desires: a fear of trichinosis and a desire to be slim and enjoy good health. Pork consumption has been hard hit by the esthetic standards of a svelte figure and by an obsession with healthiness, which has led many to shun anything associated with cholesterol and rich foods. Pork is under fire from many nutritionists and this particular aversion has been widely disseminated, especially among the upper and middle classes. People with lower incomes and therefore fewer options almost certainly have other reasons.
National panic: Pigs with “the seed” The propaganda about the risks of trichina-infected pork has been overwhelming, which is hardly surprising in a country with minimal sanitary controls. Human beings suffer from trichinosis when they acquire a parasite called Trichinella spiralis, which lives in a pig’s muscles. This can cause bloody diarrhea, which leads to anemia due to the loss of iron, but the infection can be treated with the proper medications. The parasite itself is destroyed by cooking pork at 77 degrees centigrade or more and can also be destroyed by freezing the meat: -15 degrees centigrade for 20 days or -30 degrees for 6 days does the trick.
But there is some confusion. When Nicaraguans talk nervously about pigs with “the seed,” most of them think they are referring to trichinosis, but it is actually another disease known as cysticercosis, which in its extreme form can affect the central nervous system and be fatal. While it is also transmitted by beef and even by vegetables washed with contaminated water, pigs have come to be viewed as the exclusive carriers of this much-feared disease, as the beef most of us consume is more likely than pork to have passed through slaughterhouses and been subjected to sanitary controls. Many pigs are now reared on farms and have passed from the domestic to the industrial sphere, but this has failed to free them from the stigma of being dangerous transmitters of cysticercosis, caused by tapeworm larvae known as cysticerci.
At the beginning of 2003, following the detection of 900 cases of epilepsy in Estelí, the media reported that doctors there had initiated an investigation to find out whether the epidemic was the result of cysticercus-infected pork. While the hypothesis was never proved, such news stories have been undermining pork’s place in our diets. There is absolutely no doubt that cysticercosis and trichinosis are serious health threats, but we don’t have to eliminate pigs to rid ourselves of these parasites: efficient pig rearing would do the job. The US population is still stuffing itself with the same amounts of pork as 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago and produces enough to supply its own needs, while a lack of good controls means that our pigs have been excluded from exports and rejected by food transnationals. In Spain, where pig meats dominate the diet and the medieval Jews-turned-Catholics proved their conversion by incorporating pork into their diets, sanitary controls have kept the parasites at bay. Would it really be so difficult for Nicaragua to do the same?
A drastic change: From free-range to penned inIf the reduction in pig production is a reaction to declining demand, it would be logical to expect a drop in the price of pork corresponding to its condition as a less-esteemed meat, an attempt to increase its competitiveness. This is the strategy adopted for most of our other commodities, from furniture to beans.
But against all expectations, the price of pork has risen. According to FAO statistics, the price paid to pig producers shot up almost 80% between 1997 and 2001, while the price of chicken rose by only 28% during the same period. We therefore need to look at other factors, using the hypothesis that the price rise has responded to decreasing supply caused by the decline in domestic pig rearing, in turn due to the increasing costs involved.
The great crusade against trichinosis and cysticercosis is partly to blame for the rising costs. Measures taken by the Ministry of Health, such as seizing infected pigs, has discouraged pig-rearing, or more accurately, a certain cheap way of rearing pigs that we could term “free range,” in which the pigs were allowed to roam free and “recycle” kitchen trash and any kind of animal protein unattractive to humans. They quickly consumed anything they found on their wanderings. In the absence of latrines, such findings included human excrement, which only increased the risk of contamination.
The result has been a growing tendency to pen in pigs. Other factors contributing to their confinement and placing the “free range” system in crisis include reduced availability of land, its parceling and delimitation and an increasing sense of ownership. The fact that the largest pig farms supplying the pork sold in markets today are owned by Taiwanese and that the supermarkets in the capital increasingly offer only imported pork leads to the conclusion that, one way or another, Nicaraguan pork consumption has gone transnational.
The pigs’ diet is under serious threatWith their wandering increasingly limited, what sources of food can pigs now rely on in our rural districts? Whey, concentrates, leftovers from human meals and family-produced maize—the first of which is one of this animal’s most treasured delights. The only problem is that Parmalat, Nicaragua’s huge new Italian transnational milk collector, now stores a good part of the whey dairy farmers produce in order to manufacture other milk derivatives. And concentrates? The poor farmer’s cry is deafening: “At two córdobas a pound, no way!”
The most relevant factor here is the sharp change in the peasant diet, which now leaves less waste for pigs to feed on, so they have ceased processing human leftovers and even started competing for the same diet. If a peasant family decides to complement its beans with something cheap, it might decide on spaghetti with catsup rather than vegetables. Poor pig! The plastic bags and paper boxes containing the industrially processed products now sold at the local store offer nothing to the porcine diet. The fact that more peasants are resorting to such processed foods denies the pigs access to the kind of delicacies that were on their menu for many years: plantain or avocado skins, cassava and other vegetable peelings, rotten bananas, damaged lettuce, cabbage leaves, tortilla scraps and pepper and squash seeds.
The icon of saving is becoming a thing of the pastThe pig’s diet competes even more with the human diet because the best way to fatten up a pig is to feed it maize, which as any peasant pig farmer will tell you provides it with a “solid corpulence.” But maize has become increasingly expensive to produce because renting land is more expensive, there are more attractive alternatives (opportunity costs also rose), the natural soil fertility has plummeted and the prices of the agrochemicals that provide artificial fertility and eliminate weeds have also increased. Maize has become too costly… and as the gospel warns, you shouldn’t cast pearls before swine.
Other elements have also contributed to the withdrawal of maize from the pigs’ diet. Marvin Harris mentioned that centuries ago in the Ohio valley, farmers could easily harvest more than they could sell due to the rudimentary state of the communications routes and high road transport costs. The best way of marketing the surplus was to feed it to the pigs or cattle then drive them over the mountains to be sold in the cities on the east coast.
This transformation of maize into animal protein, into pork, made the pig an ideal symbol of saving. Even today, we quite literally save our coins in clay, plastic, metal and plaster “piggy” banks. This traditional icon has survived throughout the years, reminding us of the role the pig played in the countryside: a likeable four-legged friend into which surplus production was gradually introduced, day by day, so it would be available for special occasions such as christenings, Christmases, weddings, journeys and even illnesses…
The monetarizing of the peasant economy and improved communications have changed all that. In the previous self-subsistence economy, the surplus maize not used for human consumption was fed to the pigs and chickens. But now more maize is sold to satisfy new needs, including the purchase of imported transnational articles, so is no longer invested in pigs’ bellies. It is sent to market and ultimately transformed into a bottle of coke rather than staying at home and providing a fat, solid pig. The market created new needs and the highways allowed them to be satisfied.
The pig is dead, long live the chicken! While Nicaragua bids a fond farewell to its pigs, it is busy opening up to chicken. According to FAO figures, we have nearly always had about one and a half chickens per Nicaraguan: 1.24 in 1961, 1.41 in 1971, 1.63 in 1981 and 1.48 in 1992. But by 2002, we had almost three chickens per inhabitant. That’s a 100% increase in one decade. In a context in which chicken exports have fallen, this indicates greater domestic consumption. We reached our exporting peaks in 1964 and 1968, when 400,000 and 140,000 chickens were exported respectively. An average of almost 46,000 chickens have been exported since 1964, except for 2000 and 2001, when we only exported 5,000. Nowadays we eat them back home.
And, as with pork, not all of the chicken we eat is produced in Nicaragua. We import a lot as well, much more than we used to. In the last 20 years, we have imported an average of 886,000 chickens a year. In 2001, over 2 million foreign chickens came in to our market. As a result, we eat a lot more chicken these days. In 1961, we consumed 1.3 kilograms of chicken meat per person per year. Allowing for the oscillations and overall decline in chicken consumption between 1978 and 1990, we have experienced such a sustained increase that in 2001 we were consuming 11 kilograms per person per year, which is much higher than the average of 3.8 kilograms over the forty-year period.
This chicken boom began in 1991, when Nicaraguan chicken consumption jumped from to 16,000 metric tons, compared to 7,000 in 1990. In 1992, it rose to 21,000 tons and we are now close to tripling that figure. Meanwhile, the La Estrella and Tip-Top chicken companies, the latter bought up by a transnational, multiplied their stock, swallowing up almost the entire market.
This chicken boom has coincided with the pork slump. Our annual average per-capita pork consumption of 3.1 kilograms fell to 2.5 in 1991, 2.1 in 1993 and 1.3 in 1994. This has inverted the production of the two kinds of meat, so that in 2002 we produced 1.17 metric tons of pork and 10.5 metric tons of chicken for every 1,000 Nicaraguans. In 1990, just a year before the chicken boom, we were producing 2.74 metric tons of pork and 1.86 metric tons of chicken per 1,000 inhabitants.
Let’s now further disaggregate the figures on animal protein consumption cited at the beginning of this article. In the Nicaragua of 30 years ago, the amount of protein we obtained from chicken represented just 10% of what we obtained from beef. Nowadays our consumption of chicken-derived proteins is almost 67% higher than our consumption of those derived from beef. We’ve become a beef-producing country with a chicken-based diet; our economic slogan could easily be “beef for the foreigners, chicken for the nationals.” Salvadorans, meanwhile, produce almost no beef, but consume more than we do.
Chicken production is more profitable because a chicken’s diet is relatively cheap. The chicken boom is due to an increase in the use of animal-based fossil foods, mainly fish flour. From the energy point of view, however, according to Marvin Harris, each calorie of chicken breast costs a minimum of six calories of such relatively cheap ingredients used in the concentrates.
What’s good to eat is what sells wellWhat’s good to eat has become cheap to produce and good to sell. Once interest has been created, you just have to press certain buttons for the commercial selection mechanism to be activated, then excluded or indulged. One such button is tax policy. In Nicaragua—with no real logic—pig imports are “punished” by a 45% tax. National chicken producers don’t even want to sniff any competing meats. Lacking political champions, pork has been ostracized and the country could end up on the verge of a nacatamal and vigorón crisis. Do we have to wait for a transnational to come along and rear pigs in order to save our most delicious national dishes?
At some point, we stopped being pig producers, exporters and consumers. Marvin Harris very insightfully observed that with the appearance of transnational businesses dedicated to producing and selling food on the world market, our dietary habits have been constrained by a calculating of costs and benefits that while increasingly accurate is also more partial. It is becoming increasingly true that what’s good to eat is what sells well.
The pig within usMany will undoubtedly applaud the decline of pork and sing in praise of chicken nacatamales. But in this battle involving the conflicting interests of commercial farms, peasants, merchants and owners of fried food stands, we may know some of the winners, but we have little idea just how much we’re losing. Harris says that in order to eat better, we have to know more about the causes and practical consequences of our shifting food habits. We have to know more about the nutritional aspect of foods and about their lucrative aspect.
Do we really know more? We’ll try to find out more about all this in forthcoming articles, but for the moment we’ll close our reflection on the dethroned pig with a wise proverb, quoted by José Saramago in Alzado del Suelo, that elevates this animal to our level (or reduces us to its): If you want to know your body, open up your pig, because they are the same.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher with Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial board.