Will a New NAFTA Mean Better Food and Health for North Americans?

As the U.S. and Mexico re-write their trade relationship, a new book examines the cross-border symbiosis of diet and disease.



When Alyshia Gálvez’s mother was growing up in California in the 1950s, she traveled to Michigan every winter to visit family. When she returned home, she would march into a grocery store, buy a head of lettuce, and eat it while sitting on the curb out front. At that time, in most of the United States, finding fresh greens in the supermarket in the winter was rare—hence the California girl’s sense of relative desperation.

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez book coverFour decades later, the North American Free Trade Agreement entered the scene. Since the three-party treaty went into effect in 1994, consumers across the U.S. and Canada have had access to off-season lettuce—and countless other vegetables—grown in the warmer fields of Mexico. This improved access to produce is just one of many ways in which the food systems of all three countries have become codependent. Even as produce flooded the U.S. market, processed foods made their way into rural corners of Mexico that previously relied on a traditional milpa diet of mostly maize, peppers, pumpkin, and beans.

“Today in Mexico, basics like water, roads, and internet connectivity are not available in some rural communities. But Coca Cola is everywhere,” says Gálvez, a professor of Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York.

In her new book published this week by UC Press, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, Gálvez dissects the web of corporate marketing power, public health, and—most ephemerally—changing tastes that has entangled especially the U.S. and Mexico since the treaty was signed. And now, even as NAFTA continues to reshape food systems across North America, it is in the midst of a renegotiation that could alter that web indelibly, or even dissolve it entirely.

NAFTA and the Corporate Reinvention of Mexican agriculture

NAFTA has dramatically altered the landscape of Mexico. Despite the Mexican Revolution’s promise of small-farmer empowerment, political doctrine in the latter half of the 20th Century lauded industrialization as progress. Gálvez describes the signing of NAFTA as a culmination of that philosophy, with an end-goal of consolidation: “fewer people farming, on bigger farms with larger productive capacity.”

That goal, at least, has largely been achieved. The negotiators of NAFTA expected the relocation of about 500,000 total people from the countryside. The reality, however, is that about 2 million Mexican peasants have left their farms since NAFTA was signed, some heading all the way to the U.S. to fill holes in the labor market.

Alyshia Gálvez

Alyshia Gálvez

U.S. corporate interests were a strong force behind the push for NAFTA. Consequently, Gálvez argues, the regulatory framework for the agreement was based on the United States’ central—and controversial—tenet of corporate self-regulation. According to Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the Center for Food Policy at the City University of London, it is typical for the more powerful country to emerge from trade negotiations with more control.

“If you are a global power, you have more capacity to negotiate in your interests, and more economic power to flex,” she says. “That’s what happened under NAFTA, and that’s what happens on a daily basis in trade negotiations.”

This power differential is also at play in the corporate marketing game. There has been a 30-year trend toward the use of more technology and more processing in the food system—not just in the U.S. and Mexico, but globally as well. Technology favors a certain kind of large-scale, industrial farming system. According to Hawkes, this means big companies create increasingly processed products in order to compete in the brave, new, technology-dependent world—as well as a relentless pressure to sell more. Hawkes says that, though this trend runs parallel to the rise of obesity worldwide, “they are not actively trying to manufacture obesity.”

As NAFTA increased the availability of fruits and vegetables grown year-round on temperate Mexico’s industrializing farms, tastes in the U.S. leaned away from the processed foods that industrial leaders like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola churned out. While the U.S. remains a key market, these corporations have turned to the global South as well. This was especially true when the U.S.—with help from Michelle Obama’s influence—began to push to restrict corporations from marketing products high in sugar, fat, or salt to children.

“So, corporations look around the world to see where the legal framework still allows them to market to children, and they double down,” says Gálvez. “They market them as fast and as hard as they can, fully aware that there is no doubt about the harmful effects of these products.”

A New NAFTA, Wracked with Uncertainty

NAFTA is in the midst of a dramatic series of negotiations that—depending on the timing and the politics—could change this status quo in variable and varying ways.

A man selling traditional drinks sits outside Mercado Medellín in Mexico City.

A man selling traditional drinks sits outside Mercado Medellín in Mexico City.

Mexico’s recently elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly shortened to AMLO) is a leftist who endorsed the Farm Movement’s Plan de Ayala 2.0, a detailed set of policies that promotes self-sufficiency in key crops by 2024. The plan targets farms of smaller than 50 acres for government subsidies, and explicitly promotes food sovereignty. AMLO’s endorsement is a significant departure from the focus on agricultural consolidation that has been the norm for previous administrations.

However, the current, more pro-business president, Enrique Peña Nieto, wants to wrap NAFTA negotiations up before AMLO takes office. President Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer have spent the last month conducting mostly two-way talks, first with Mexico (mostly about automobiles), then with Canada.

No three-party deal has been struck yet, but the Trump administration’s steady push for deregulation makes food and health advocates throughout North America especially pessimistic about the new deal’s potential impact on public health.

For an example, look no further than a proposed provision that would make it illegal to put junk food warning labels on any product in the U.S., Mexico, or Canada. Alejandro Calvillo, the director of El Poder del Consumidor—a Mexican NGO that works for the rights of consumers, focusing especially on food and obesity—cites the proposal as one reason he is concerned that the new version could make things even worse in the long run. The Peña Nieto government and the influential business trade association ConMexico both support the provision.

“In preventing these warnings, the government and the industry are presenting an obstacle in the fight against obesity,” Calvillo says, noting that it has been just two years since the government declared obesity and diabetes epidemiological emergencies in 2016.

In Gálvez’s view, this discrepancy is reflective of the relative priorities of the current people at the negotiating table.

“I don’t think anybody is worried about public health,” she says. “I don’t think anybody is worried about small-scale agricultural producers. I don’t think anybody is worried about migrants, I don’t think anybody is worried about small communities in the US or in Mexico. I think the only people who are being properly represented at the negotiating table are the corporations, and corporate interests broadly.”

The Public Health Impact of Changing Tastes

Since NAFTA, subsidized corn, soy, and meat products in the U.S. have altered a food landscape that now includes people outside its borders. This has included the cheap, corn-syrup-heavy products that have saturated the North American market with very little regulation, pushing aside more traditional, local foods.

“There are parts of Mexico where it is now really difficult to find fruits and vegetables,” says Calvillo. “One kilo of fruit costs the same as a 600-milliliter Coca Cola.”

Today, Mexico is the largest consumer of carbonated drinks in the world, and the largest consumer of processed foods in Latin America. As has been well-documented, this is one of many causes of a snowballing health crisis. According to Gálvez, in nearly every country experiencing this sort of economic transition, chronic illnesses including heart disease and diabetes have surpassed communicable diseases.

Chain shops like Circle K have popped up across Mexico.

Chain shops like Circle K have popped up across Mexico.

This trend begets its own corporate opportunity. U.S. pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies also export to Mexico—Mexico’s market for diabetes devices is expected to reach $1.209 billion by 2021.

While the U.S. has experienced a similar trend toward obesity and diabetes (and, in fact, the U.S. and Mexico are neck-and-neck for the title of “world’s most obese population”), Gálvez points out that this has come alongside the improved freshness, availability, and price of produce. Even so, obesity rates in the U.S. are still at record levels, and in Mexico they are still increasing.

Clearly, U.S. consumers have not abandoned their taste for Doritos and Pepsi. Rather, it means they have also embraced the peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, limes, and avocados grown south of the border, which mitigates some of the negative effects of an increasingly industrial food system. Basically, both countries are experiencing public health crises, but Mexico’s is comparably worse because it exports so much of its produce to the U.S. market. Instead of the tianguis markets where local fruits and vegetables were historically inexpensive and plentiful, the food needs of Mexicans are increasingly met by chains like Walmart, Coca Cola-owned OXXO, and Circle K.

Among the many victims of this system is Mexico’s traditional milpa cuisine; the mostly vegetarian diet that nourished Mexicans cheaply for generations has evolved along with the rest of the food system. This tradition, emphasizes Gálvez, “is really quite healthful.” She adds, “You simply do not see diabetes among people who eat [the milpa-based diet] historically. Diabetes is a product of an industrialized diet.”

In 2010, UNESCO added traditional Mexican cuisine to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Mexico and France are the only two countries to have their cuisines so honored.

Gálvez partially attributes this award to the relative scarcity of that style of eating today; it’s no longer as economically viable as it once was. In the U.S., taco trucks are common in every major city and chapulines (toasted and seasoned grasshoppers) are popping up on restaurant menus. Accordingly, Mexico’s investment in gastro-tourism has spiked. Restaurants like Enrique Olvera’s Pujol—which focuses on celebrating a refined version of milpa staples—frequently are listed among the best in the world, and tourists in Mexico City can take classes on how to make tamales by hand.

The great irony, says Gálvez, is that these foods have become suddenly appealing because they are no longer as accessible as they were before NAFTA. Since 1994, the GDPs of both the U.S. and Mexico have grown by billions, though whether this growth is attributable to NAFTA is debated. But something has also been lost, to such a degree that it cannot be undone.

“When I moved to New York City 25 years ago, you couldn’t get tortillas. Now, you have half a million Mexicans in New York City,” says Gálvez. “And those people are largely from those communities that saw their ability to live off the land ruined overnight, after NAFTA.”

Top photo: Mexicans gather at a street corner comal for lunch in the milpa tradition. All photos © Lisa Martine Jenkins.

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