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In Buenos Aires, a brave few go veggie

Try giving up meat in the world's biggest beef-eating nation.

While keeping a vegetarian diet is often cheaper than eating beef, that's not necessarily the case in Argentina where the government controls the price of beef. In the past three years, beef has been cheaper than empanadas or even pizza.

But beef prices have soared in the last two months, as the country faces herd shortages and the prospect of importing cattle for the first time in decades. With inflation soaring and a severe drought, on top of the government's price caps, cattle farmers began liquidating their herds. Many started planting soy crops, which recorded yields this year. Dubbed the "green gold," soy has become Argentina's top export, driven in part by increasing demand in China.

And a "milanesa de soja" — Italian-style breaded soy patty — is commonly found in Argentine restaurants alongside the traditional beef and chicken versions.

With vegetarian food becoming more common on the restaurant scene, entrepreneurs are hoping the trend can make its way into Argentine kitchens.

Marcelo Barraza is starting a homemade vegetarian frozen food delivery service after having worked in an organic vegetable company. "I realized it was a great business opportunity in the long run," he said.

"There is a demand," agreed Fenando Baz, owner of Jardin Organico, which sells organic foods and vegetables in Buenos Aires. "Maybe 60 to 70 percent of my clients are vegetarians." And he says his company is growing about 20 percent every year.

The country has the resources to support growing domestic demand for vegetarian and health food. Argentina's pampas are famous for producing grass-fed beef, but the length of the country allows it to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, similar to California. Argentina is currently is the world's second largest producer of organic vegetables per acre after Australia, but most of it is exported.

Still creating a strong domestic market for those vegetables is a question of changing not just the Argentine diet, but also a fundamental characteristic of its culture.

Back at Almacen Casero, Maria Magdalena isn't counting on raking in the profits just yet. "I don’t know if a great future but there is a future. The idea isn't to become rich."

Yet something is definitely stirring to give her quiet confidence in her new business. In an eight-block radius of her grocery, one can find two more vegetarian groceries and several restaurants with "comida vegetariana" written on the windows.

"We're in Almagro — a middle class neighborhood and it's starting to be accepted, " says Magdalena sipping mate tea as customers casually peak in the door." We can even see it in our own families: they are already making some room when they make a barbecue. This is going to grow. It's going to grow. "

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/argentina/100223/vegetarians-buenos-aires