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NAFTA and the Mexican Diet

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As part of my goal to get 0 comments per post, on a day dominated by the defeat of Roy Moore, it’s time for a post on the recent transitions in the Mexican diet, particularly in the context of a post-NAFTA North America. This is a useful overview of the issue.

But few critics predicted it would transform the Mexican diet and food ecosystem to increasingly mirror those of the United States. In 1980, 7 percent of Mexicans were obese, a figure that tripled to 20.3 percent by 2016, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Diabetes is now Mexico’s top killer, claiming 80,000 lives a year, the World Health Organization has reported.

For many Mexicans, Nafta promised to make real “the fever dreams of joining the modern economy,” said Timothy A. Wise, a trade expert at the Small Planet Institute and Tufts University. “All former rural workers would be in new jobs in the burgeoning manufacturing industries of the post-Nafta world. That just hasn’t happened.”

“The only way that Mexico became a ‘first world’ country was in terms of diet.”

The phenomenon is not limited to Mexico. Research shows free trade is among the key factors that have accelerated the spread of low-nutrient, highly processed foods from the west, “driving the obesity epidemic in China, India, and other developing countries worldwide,” according to the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.

But Jaime Zabludovsky Kuper, Mexico’s deputy chief negotiator on the pact, said Nafta didn’t cause obesity. Instead, he said, it lowered food prices and reduced malnutrition. In 2012, 1.6 percent of Mexican children suffered from severe malnutrition, a sharp drop from 6.2 percent in 1988, according to government data.

Mr. Kuper said that Mexicans had long been enticed by American food, and that high tariffs used to make it expensive, not unavailable. The economy is now more stable, he said, and Mexicans are living longer — which is partly why more people are dying from noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. “It’s a symptom of relative prosperity,” he said.

The broader pros and cons of Nafta have come under increasing scrutiny given President Trump’s threats to dismantle it. Among its chief champions are American farm and food-retailing interests whose fortunes have benefited tremendously from the open market. Mexican exports to the United States have surged, and a more stable economic structure has evolved in Mexico. The country’s unemployment rate has stayed mostly constant, but average wages have fallen to $15,311 in 2016 from $16,008 in 1994, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Critics of Nafta acknowledge the complex causes of obesity, but argue free trade intensified the problem by opening Mexico’s largely isolated economy.

Both sides are right. First, globalization is a tremendously powerful force and trade agreements such as NAFTA codify it, but they don’t really create it. There’s no question that NAFTA transformed the Mexican diet both by bringing in more American products but also by making Mexico dependent on the global commodity market in a way it was not before, leading to instability, such as during the 2007 corn price hike that was directly related to American corn farmers shifting to selling their products to ethanol makers instead of to Mexico. As the information above suggests, NAFTA helped create a more stable but not a more prosperous Mexico, with average wages actually declining since 1994. That means more predictably but not less poverty and with a lot more hard work, often far away from the farms where people originated. The combination of migration and poverty means that cheap American food is not only desirable but also accessible and easy. It’s worth noting that it’s not as if Mexican food traditions are disappearing. American food is more an addition than a replacement. This article also overstates the power of Walmart, which is a strongly middle class phenomenon in Mexico. It may well be the larger grocery store in Mexico, but many millions of Mexicans do not get their food through grocery stores at all and that needs to be part of the larger picture here, even as products such as Coca-Cola are obviously available basically everywhere.

There’s also nothing inherently better about a food regime that requires a tremendous amount of unpaid women’s labor, often highly romanticized by food writers such as Michael Pollan, even as it might well lead to health problems. In any case, American corporations are a powerful global force, creating desires that are assisted by trade agreements. But the transformation of foreign attitudes toward American products are still created without those agreements.

And now I want to go to the market stalls in Oaxaca and get some far better food than anything American companies are selling.

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