Cultural Traditions & Environmental Lessons of the Paraguayan Asado

When you sit in almost any Paraguayan home, bar or restaurant, of any social class, on a Sunday noon, you can almost unequivocally expect to eat a piece of asado. That is, a piece of meat slowly cooked in a special type of grill called a parrilla, heated by firewood or more often, carbón (charcoal). This exceptionally popular dish is common to Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Paraphrasing Allie Lazar, an American food blogger living in Argentina: in Paraguay, where there’s fire, there’s a dismembered cow slowly grilling over hot coals. Or an asado going on. The term even extends to social occasions, as in any of these countries when you say “I have an asado,” it does not necessarily mean you have a piece of meat in your pocket. It just alludes to the fact you are going someplace to eat an asado.

Asado is much more than a meal. In Paraguay and the other South American countries known worldwide for the quality of their beef, asado is a culinary cultural event. Asado is where you gather family and friends around the roasted meat. When you attend an asado, you cannot just drop in when the meat is already done, sit, and eat it. NEVER. You have to arrive at least two hours in advance, so that you can see the raw meat being seasoned, then carefully placed in the parrilla with the chorizos (sausages) while the fire is being lit, and watch as the meal grills slowly to its perfection. In the meantime, you connect with the rest of the guests, usually drinking beers or wine (depending on the season), playing some table games, sports, or just chatting.

The culture of asado can go from a simple grilled steak to a parade of side dishes that are usual suspects when you are preparing this meal. Sausages (chorizo parrillero and morcilla, a blood sausage); the offal or internal organs, also called menudencias (the molleja or sweetbreads is the queen here); Russian salad (a potato salad with mayonnaise, peas and carrots, all mixed up); or a simpler ensalada mixta (made from lettuce, tomato, and onion); sopa Paraguaya (a spongy cake made with corn flour, cheese and milk or whey); mandioca (yuca or manioc); and chipa guazu (a cake made with corn grains) are some typical foods accompanying asado.

The origins of this culture probably go back to ancient times when, for cowboys, the open fire was the only cooking option and meat the only dependable source of food. The Spanish brought to Paraguay the first seven cows and a bull in the mid-14th century. It is believed that, by the time of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), the country’s cattle herds were something around three million head, being the largest in the Southern Cone. But, as the war devastated the country, the livestock sector was depleted, leaving only 15,000 head. It took more than 40 years to meet local demand again and have some significant beef exports. Throughout the years, beef production and exports fluctuated considerably due to international price movements, weather conditions, government pricing policies, and other factors, but beef was already starting to play a key role in Paraguay’s export pool. In 1987, 75 percent of the slaughter went to the domestic market and the remaining 25 percent to the export market. After a significant decline in exports in 2011 due to the latest foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, production has recovered and the ratio reversed: today about 70 percent of the annual production is exported. And we are talking about a small landlocked, 406,752 square kilometer country with 7 million habitants but with already more than one cattle head per person.

Paraguayans love beef. More specifically, most love to eat beef various times a week, only limited by the occasionally high price of this commodity for the common citizen. Annual consumption is about 39 kilograms per person in Paraguay. That is, in average, 106 grams per person (half a regular steak) per day. But love for beef and the asado is not limited to our country. As a proof, there is a global community of asado lovers that has an official YouTube channel, a fan page on Facebook; Twitter; Instagram, an official gift shop and even an official song! With over 650,000 subscribers and over 67,000,000 video views, this cultural movement is definitively global.

But how did Paraguay become one of the top six beef exporters in the world? The answer has many parts. First, there have been continued and coordinated efforts since 2005 from a public-private partnership between businessmen, government, the Rural Association of Paraguay, meat exporters, universities and scientists who came together to improve product quality and overcome barriers – especially sanitary standards – which previously limited Paraguay’s export performance in international markets. Second, Paraguayan beef production achieved the highest standards of quality and productivity. Improved genetics, a better feeding system, and stronger animal management shortened the breeding and fattening period – the time before cattle is transported to the slaughterhouse – from close to three years to just under two, on average.

Third, it is naturally produced. Paraguayan producers have put in place a standard by which beef produced in Paraguay is certified to be from animals that are: grass-fed; with no added hormones or antibiotics; from a verified source containing no animal by-products; and raised on the open range and never confined. These are probably the factors that make Paraguayan beef so tender, with just the right quantity of fat. Fourth, better infrastructure and control of livestock transport from the field to the slaughterhouses. Today, Paraguay has seventeen modern slaughterhouses for exports, all of which have invested millions of dollars in adjusting their facilities and equipment according to international standards. Finally, the government has played an important role in generating market intelligence and promoting the participation of producers in international food fairs around the globe.

Deforestation in the Chaco. Photo courtesy Rene Gonzalez.
A Paraguayan meat processing plant.
A typical asado in the Chaco.

But even with all these factors aligned, what makes beef production thrive so well in Paraguay? The very traditional beef production system is spread all around the country, but concentrated in the Eastern region (43 percent) and especially in the western Chaco (57 percent), the second largest natural landscape in South America after the Amazon. This activity is developed using the abundant natural resources and competitive advantages for raising livestock: fertile soils, sun, water and rainfalls without extreme conditions. But this success does not come without a cost to the country’s natural resources. Plans to expand from the current 13 million head of cattle to 18 million by 2020 is expected to result in the conversion of large natural landscapes to pastures. This expansion has led the Chaco to be named as the region with the “highest deforestation rates in the world” according to a study made by Hansen et al and published at Science Magazine (2013). There is also a high level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with both deforestation and methane from cattle that negatively impact the environment. In the case of the Chaco, which is rich in biodiversity, with jaguars, pumas, Chacoan peccaries, giant armadillos and anteaters, tapirs, and hundreds of other mammals, birds and reptiles, and diverse ecosystems, including savannas, marshes, semiarid thorn forests and open grasslands on sand dunes within its borders, the challenge becomes avoiding or minimizing losses to the natural environment while guaranteeing economic development.

There are some slaughter companies that are already thinking about this. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is working in Paraguay with one of them: Minerva Foods. This gigantic company – with branches and multiple slaughter plants in Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, and Brazil (where it is based) – controls between 30 to 50 percent of the total heads slaughtered every year in these four countries, and it exports to more than 100 countries in five continents. In 2013, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) became a Minerva shareholder, thus supporting its regional expansion program but in turn, demanding adherence to environmental and social sustainability measures that mitigate the impacts of cattle ranching in the countries that provide cattle to the company. This sustainability vision was first implemented in Brazil, where Minerva has built a GIS web based verification system integrated with their own supply chain database, to check environmental and social information from all its primary suppliers in the Amazon Region, including land title, tax number, CAR mapping and registration, overlapping with legally protected areas and information from official monitoring of deforestation in the Amazon Region.

Since 2016, this company has also worked in alliance with the Forest Conservation Agriculture Alliance (FCAA) Project, along with WCS, WWF, the Mennonite Neuland Cooperative, the Central Chaco Association of Municipalities and the IFC, financed by USAID. And it has started an extension program in partnership with WCS oriented to its cattle providers. The objective is to promote practices that would secure increased productivity, sustainability, and legal compliance among producers. This technical assistance will include technology transfer (such as pasture management practices, land use, and cattle nutrition) through workshops and training sessions with extension agents. We will also develop manuals containing best practices and performance standards for more sustainable cattle production, tailored to the Paraguayan context. A select number of these ranches should serve as model farms, where other ranchers can be trained and observe firsthand how the adoption of sustainable production standards can increase productivity and reduce environmental impact.

The expected result is that using the market force as the “carrot” in the medium term, providers will seek to adjust their practices to these environmental and social standards in order to continue supplying to Minerva. It is important to note here that in the Paraguayan Chaco, where the highest increase in cattle production has taken place in the last decade, the law only requires 25 percent of forest to be preserved in each rural property. The rest can be legally deforested. So, a strong portfolio of economic incentives should be put in place for ranchers to avoid such land conversion. As Paraguay continues its rise as a leading global beef exporter, there is no question that its agricultural production will continue to expand. Where and how that expansion will occur is critical. It is of paramount importance and it is entirely possible to increase production while conserving biodiversity, reducing deforestation, and adhering to local regulations. Within the FCAA project, WCS and its partners are working in collaboration with committed companies such as Minerva to ensure that this continued agricultural expansion, particularly as it relates to beef, is conducted in an environmentally sound manner.

Much work remains for Paraguayan beef to be recognized as “sustainable.” And even more work will be needed to convince regular consumers that they should demand that the beef on their plate has not been produced by damaging natural landscapes. It is an enormous challenge but some progress is being made thanks to responsible companies, new partners, efforts to engage public opinion, and more importantly, showing cattle producers there are other ways to be profitable than exclusively clearing forest to install more pastures and raise cattle. New knowledge in this arena is being gained every day. Hopefully, a new conservation vision will soon start to change the world we want to leave to future generations. From our table.