The cop doesn’t stand a chance. He desperately defends himself and does everything to free himself from the narrow wooden box. But the men trying to tame him with ropes are stronger. And then Gaucho Martín uses the knife and cuts off the young animal’s testicles. He throws them into a bucket that already has a few dozen more in it.

Bloody work, not for the faint of heart. For Argentinian cattle breeders, it is an essential prerequisite for the best quality. “The animals become more powerful and the quality better,” says Don Julio, 76, the owner of the Estancia “El Mirador”, about a two-hour drive from Buenos Aires.

Argentina, home of the perfect rump steak, is one of the world’s largest meat producers. In 2020, the country exported beef and leather worth 2.8 billion euros. Nowhere is more meat consumed than in Argentina. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), consumption in 2019 was 38 kilograms per capita and year – far ahead of the USA, which is in second place with 26 kilograms per capita.

For centuries the “meat culture” was not questioned. But that has been changing for some time. In Argentina, too, the number of people who advocate a vegetarian or even vegan way of life and who loudly rebel against tradition is growing.

The rift runs right through society: urban versus rural ways of thinking, young versus old philosophies of life and mostly women versus men. There was a first strong clash at the Expo-Rural – a traditional agricultural fair in Buenos Aires.

In September 2019, at the last show before the pandemic, vegans stormed the fair. The video of the attack on Argentinian meat culture went viral, and opponents and supporters then fought hot debates on local television.

In the capital, the walls of the houses reflect the culture war over the steak. In the Palermo district, just a few hundred meters from the “Don Julio” steak restaurant, where Angela Merkel stopped off at the G-20 summit in 2018 and which has just been voted one of the best in the world, posters erupt: “Veganism is Equality, veganism is justice.” Activists go around houses at night to leave messages on closed shutters in front of shop windows: “Don’t kill animals, save the world.”

“There’s a shift in people’s consciousness in Argentina,” says Malena Blanco, an activist with animal rights group Voicot. She is one of the most well-known faces of the vegan movement in her home country. “People are starting to understand that there is a connection between climate change, animal welfare, land grabbing from indigenous communities on the one hand, and the way we live on the other.”

More and more people would have access to information and images and could see how, among other things, an animal is slaughtered. Something like that leaves its mark: Young people are therefore increasingly refusing to eat meat.

The activists are not only concerned with climate and animal protection, but also with a general reorientation of the Argentine economy, with more justice. “The enemy is the system that makes the wealth from this business accessible to only a small fraction of the population,” says Blanco.

Far from the discussions of the urban community in Buenos Aires, the Estancia “El Mirador” is proud of its own meat culture. Meanwhile, Don Julio prepares an asado, a classic Argentinian barbecue.

He lets the wood he has collected burn for an hour or two, then he cuts the meat of a freshly slaughtered cow into small pieces. Then he pushes the embers of the burning wood under the meat.

His sons and the gauchos are sitting at the wooden table in the country estate built around 1860. That’s how they always did it in Argentina. Is that supposed to be wrong? “The asado is good because it’s a family culture and you have to keep that tradition alive,” says Don Julio. “Argentina needs that and so does the world.”

After all, the South American country has the potential to produce food for 400 million people around the world. But the current government, according to the rancher, is preventing Argentina’s agribusiness from growing like it’s happening in Brazil.

Gaucho Martín, the man who castrated dozens of young cattle that morning, puts testicles on the grill. He feels the vegan movement is unfair. “There are women who are publicly opposed to eating meat, but use cosmetics for their own beauty that animals have had to suffer for.”

In fact, the Argentine culture war over meat is also a war of the sexes. After all, cattle breeding is a traditional male profession, but the vegan movement is mainly carried out by young women.

Don Julio and his family see no serious threat in the vegan protest movement. They are convinced that the asado tradition is too deeply rooted in the Argentine soul. “There are few people who don’t want meat,” says Don Julio. And he also understands them: “Everyone should live the way they think is right. We just love meat. If you don’t do that, don’t do it.”

And he makes it clear that, for example, on his Estancia as well as on others, production is climate-neutral. Not only would the animals have free run-out on the vast expanses of Argentina, but there would also be enough trees to offset the harmful greenhouse gases emitted by cows. In general, more CO₂ is consumed in Argentina than is generated.

Should the Argentines eventually become a vegan people, then there would be alternatives. Juan Antonio, one of Don Julio’s sons, says he’s read that around 40 million people could rise into the middle class in China every year. “Can you imagine that? A group as large as the population of Argentina every year. And they all want to eat our meat.”