The planet consumes twice as much salt as the medically recommended amount. Thousands of people could already be sentenced to death due to this excessive intake. A topic that goes beyond a simple culinary recipe and confronts an ethical and just climate transition.
In the right doses, salt is an essential nutritious spice. In excessive amounts, it increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death.
The global average salt intake is 10.8 grams per day, which is more than the acceptable 5 grams (slightly less than a teaspoon). That is, 200% more than what a balanced diet accepts. This excess threatens the lives of 7 million people over the next seven years. That is the number of those who will surely die of a heart attack or stroke.
This dramatic reality, exposed in a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, conspired against the commitments made by the international community to reduce sodium consumption by 30% by 2025 (https://news.un.org/es/story/ 2023/03/1519247).
The main source of sodium is table salt (sodium chloride), but it is also found in other substances used to flavor food.
The WHO points out that unhealthy diet is one of the main causes of disease and death in the world and warns that every day there is more and more evidence of a close correlation between high sodium intake and an increased risk of various conditions, such as stomach cancer. , obesity, osteoporosis and kidney disease. Slow awareness – and concrete decisions – by governments do not match the seriousness of the problem. This conclusion comes from this report, according to which only 5% of nations have established mandatory health protection policies that include reducing sodium consumption. Almost three out of four countries in the world do not have complete indicators for ensuring control measures. To date, only 9 have appropriate measures of state regulation. Among them four Latin Americans: Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay. The other five are Spain, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia.
Aim for the salt
According to the WHO, a comprehensive approach to sodium reduction for the prevention of non-communicable diseases must include two pillars. On the one hand, the adoption of mandatory measures, and on the other, public policies for the procurement of food with a low salt content for the kitchens and canteens of public institutions, such as hospitals, schools, state institutes and nursing homes. He also suggests expanding everything that has already been done on consumer education, such as placing prominent labels on food packaging. In this way, consumers will be able to get proper information and decide on products with a lower sodium content. Finally, it suggests creating or disseminating communication campaigns that promote changes in individual behavior to reduce sodium intake.
On the other hand, and in order to apply a more effective pedagogical vision, the WHO has recently designed a global scorecard related to sodium consumption (https://extranet.who.int/nutrition/gina/en/scorecard/sodium). It has also strengthened its collaboration with the non-profit organization Resolve to save lives (https://resolvetosavelives.org/cardiovascular-health/global-nutrition-database/ndb), which has just published a global food database with information on the nutrients of packaged products which are distributed in 25 countries.
Salt, national priority and monopoly
In order to ensure this excessive consumption of salt, it is necessary to constantly increase its production and marketing worldwide.
Switzerland, a haven for transnational corporations and an open space for a dominant philosophy that promotes market liberalization, has never relinquished its monopoly on the marketing of salt, a sector the state has controlled for 450 years. An interesting 2018 analysis by the Swiss daily Le Temps comments that it is “one of the last public monopolies in Switzerland” and that “in an era of globalized trade, Switzerland retains a special feature: the salt tax”.
The aforementioned article also points out that while the Swiss government dismissed the popular initiative for food sovereignty as protectionist, it has in any case “retained one of the last public monopolies in Switzerland: salt”. It is in the hands of the joint-stock company Salines Suisse SA, founded in 2014 by the merger of Salines du Rhin and Saline vaudoise de Bex. Its shareholders are the 26 Swiss cantons (provinces or states) and one of its neighbors, the Principality of Liechtenstein. These shareholders have exclusive rights to produce and sell salt in the country under a 1973 intercantonal agreement (https://www.letemps.ch/economie/sel-lun-derniers-monopoles-publics-suisse). Salines Suisse produces about 650,000 tons of salt annually, with very high sales in recent years. The high demand for salt during the winter of 2020 and 2021 broke several sales records – about 630,000 tons, which is a record high for the company. The 370,000 tons of salt used for road de-icing was the most significant in Swiss history. The corresponding net benefits were also juicy.
Salt is not only used for consumption at the family table, but also for defrosting snowy roads in the alpine winter (main market), industry and the pharmaceutical sector, of strategic importance for the country’s economy. Salines Suisse admits on its official website that “the chemical industry in Basel was able to develop thanks to the salt factory on the Rhine” and claims that most of the salt used in commerce and industry is in the form of acids and solutions. , although many everyday products, such as soap, also contain salt. And he adds that “in Switzerland, the industry turns about 100,000 tons into a wide range of products every year.” From glass – and packaging in general – to laundry detergent, many products contain salt (https://www.salz.ch/fr/sel-commercial-industriel-pharmaceutique/du-sel-suisse-pour -le-commerce- lindustrie -et-la-pharma).
When salt rhymes with lithium
Sixteen of the 18 largest salt flats in the world are located in South America. The largest, that of Uyuni, in Bolivia, covers more than 10,000 km². They are followed by Atacama, in Chile, and Coipas (between Chile and Bolivia). Arizaro is the largest in Argentina, with 1600 km², along with those of Hombre Muerto, Pipanaco and Antofalla, to name the first on the list of South Americans. Only the Etosha Salt Flats, in Namibia (the second largest in the world, with 4,800 km²) and the Bonneville Salt Flats, in the United States (with 260 km²), escape the regional supremacy of the southern cone.
It is significant that the South American salt flats also represent 58% of the world’s reserves of lithium, a mineral that is increasingly essential for the development of numerous “clean” technologies (ecologically speaking), which seek to partially replace fossil fuels. Lithium plays a fundamental role in the production of mobile phones, batteries, computers and electric cars. South American reserves are more than double those of China, so far the second most important, and 6 times larger than Australia, third on the list.
A very comprehensive analysis entitled “The governance of lithium and copper in the Andean countries”, published in 2020 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), puts a finger on the pain point with a thorough analysis of the strategic importance of lithium. and the challenges it poses to South American countries in terms of its extraction and commercialization. The study shows that this mineral “causes an increase in extraction pressure in the Andean countries, where copper and lithium are abundant, and promotes the expansion of extractive frontiers, something that has broad social, economic and ecological consequences in these territories”. In short, that this mining industry, under the pretext of replacing fossil fuels – and thus the fight against global warming – conflicts with the local and regional interests of ensuring an ethical and fair energy transition. (https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/46479/S2000535_es.pdf).
Deciphering the panorama of who controls the production of South American lithium allows us to decipher the large transnational interests at stake, taking into account that, according to the International Energy Agency, the demand for this mineral will increase 42 times by 2040 for the production of batteries for electric cars.
At the beginning of last year, the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (CELAG) published a report (https://www.celag.org/panorama-del-litio-en-america-latina/) on the legal, economic and geopolitics of lithium in the region, taking as reference of countries that have lithium deposits: Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Brazil.
According to CELAG, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Peru control more than 67% of the world’s lithium resources. They are mainly concentrated in Bolivia (21 million tons (MtT), Argentina (18.3 MtT) and Chile (9.6 MtT).
As for the large companies that lead the world’s lithium production, CELAG lists the Chinese Jiangxi Gangfeng Lithium and Tianqi Lithium (with shares in SQM, with a presence in Chile and Mexico); the North American companies Albemarle (operating in Chile) and FMC Corporation, and the Chemical and Mining Society of Chile (SQM or Soquimich). The report also shows that Tianqi is gaining ground and working alongside Albemarle at the world’s largest mine, Greenbushes in Australia. SQM, Gangfeng and Albermale are joined by Jemse, Orocobre, Toyota Tsuyo and Livent in Argentina. In Brazil Sigma, AMG, CBL, and in Bolivia TBA-Boacheng and ASI Systema.
Latin America: from the daily plate of food to new geostrategic challenges; from the skyrocketing consumption and production of salt to the excessive anxiety of transnational and powerful political groups to control lithium in the world’s most important reserve of that mineral. Salt and lithium go hand in hand, and excessive consumption threatens not only human beings (and their daily health), but also the Earth, its life and survival.