Eating NAFTA: Obesity, Diabetes, and Free Trade
Anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez explains how a love of Mexican food led her to look at the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on community resilience and health. With our current international trade structure, nobody wins except corporations and billionaires, she says.
When President Trump hails his re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he often refers to the 1994 pact as the “worst deal ever” and says that Mexico and Canada “won” that trade deal at the expense of U.S. industries.
Trump has it wrong, says Alyshia Gálvez, author of the new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico.
“NAFTA is a bad deal for most of us who are not billionaires, parts manufacturers or factory farmers,” Gálvez writes. “Trump is wrong that with the deal Mexico is ‘winning’ at the U.S.’s expense; it’s mostly the wealthy and powerful conglomerates who are winning and the little guy who is losing.”
Gálvez is an anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the author of two previous books on Mexican migration.
The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates talked to Gálvez to learn more about the connection she sees between international trade, family economics, and public health. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bryce Oates: Tell me about your interest in agricultural trade between the U.S. and Mexico. What made you go down the road of writing a book about the topic?
Alyshia Gálvez: I became interested for two reasons. One was that I just love Mexican food, and I started to see a shift in the way we eat Mexican food in the United States. It went from being kind of a Tex-Mex, where you see a lot of melted cheese and sour cream to more authentic food. Ground corn tortillas. Lots of fresh ingredients. Fresh salsas. A lot more variety of ingredients and flavors. I started to see that happen and became curious about what was producing that shift and what was driving demand in the U.S. for that kind of food. I also started to see the prices rise, and a change in what people were willing to pay for this cuisine. I’m someone that appreciates food as art. It deserves to be recognized in the same way that any other really sophisticated, elaborate, difficult-to-make cuisine does. But I wanted to explore how there seemed to be a real market, a demand all of the sudden, for high-priced tacos.
Oates: When did you start to notice this, and where did you see the changes?
Gálvez: It was around five or six years ago. I’m someone that has studied the migration of Mexican people to the United States for the last 20 years. I was taking a look at a lot of changes to the health indicators of these migrants. I noticed that a lot people were coming to the U.S. with healthy lifestyles and practices, really strong healthy outlooks, and often would then change the way they eat. This would correspond with negative health outcomes like increased obesity, diabetes and other diet-based health problems. When I looked into this further, I started to notice that in the same time period, the family members of these people back in Mexico were starting to experience the same health problems. A rise in diabetes, a rise in obesity, heart disease, kidney disease. I was wondering what was happening on both sides of the border that was producing these health consequences, even among people that lived in very rural areas, living subsistence lifestyles, producing much of their own food. That didn’t make sense to me.
Oates: So something changed. What was that change?
Gálvez: When I started to dig into the research, I saw that the timing went along very closely with the beginning of NAFTA. I wanted to explore how NAFTA could be responsible for these changes. People in rural America will know that trade between the two countries expanded dramatically. Mexico started to consume a lot of major agricultural goods produced in the U.S., corn and soy in particular. Mexico became a major export market for these goods. At the same time, the U.S. has developed an insatiable demand for produce grown in Mexico. I live in the Northeast U.S., and without Mexican imports I wouldn’t be able to eat berries in the winter. Nearly all of the limes, the mangoes, the avocados that I eat were raised in Mexico. In fact, a lot of people in the U.S. are eating much more healthfully than we did before NAFTA, and that’s because we are eating more Mexican produce. The Mexican people, in contrast, have seen their diet decline when it comes to healthy eating. Many of them went from living in subsistence agriculture, growing their own food, cooking their food, to being the number one consumer of instant noodles, for instance. A lot of Mexicans now consume a large volume of industrial food produced with U.S. corn. It has a much higher starch and sugar content. It’s corn that is more useful to industrial applications than it is to eating directly. This is different than the corn grown historically in Mexico, that can used be dried and ground into tortillas. It can be used to feed animals, but also eaten fresh. Corn grown in Iowa for export does not have the same uses.
Oates: That’s a big difference. But what about the places in Mexico where corn was a traditional staple crop? What has changed in those places?
Gálvez: There’s been huge changes to the Mexican countryside. Originally, Mexico did anticipate that around a half-million people would be displaced from the land because of NAFTA. This was actually part of the plan. They wanted to move people into manufacturing or other sorts of industrial job sectors. They wanted people to move to cities, to “de-peasantize” people. That was the strategy they were pursuing, that they thought would lead to more development, more prosperity. What they didn’t anticipate was that half a million would leave the rural areas per year for the next 15 years. So by 2008, close to 10% of the population of Mexico lived in the United States. This is a dramatic shift.
Now corn growers in Mexico were protected with a series of supports, but those payments expired over time. Fifteen years after NAFTA began, all of those protections expired. But we see, from the beginning, a lot of supposed protections got suspended because there was a so-called Mexican corn deficit. That meant a huge amount of imported corn flooding the Mexican market almost immediately. And as the imported corn increased in volume, there was an increase in industrial packaged foods, sugar-sweetened beverages. The domestic Mexican diet shifted.
Traditional Mexican corn growers lost a variety of subsidies and incentives. The U.S. also pressured Mexico to dismantle some subsidies that helped traditional corn farmers get their crops to market. The state had previously supported these middlemen that would link up farmers with urban eaters, and that went away. That meant an end to traditional delivery and distribution networks that rural farmers depended on for their livelihoods, so they keep growing food to feed the cities. All of that was dismantled. Mexican farmers found themselves without markets, without distributors. With markets and infrastructure, a lot of rural Mexicans had to migrate.
Oates: The late 1990s and early 2000s did see a huge expansion of U.S. corn exports, but the price farmers in the U.S. received for corn at the time was terribly low, less than $2 per bushel during much of the time. There was always this promise of “exporting your way to prosperity” for U.S. farmers. But even as the corn exports increased, U.S. farmers still didn’t have corn prices to cover their cost of production.
Gálvez: A lot of what it had to do with what can be perceived as product dumping by the U.S. onto Mexico. There was a large amount of surplus production of corn, and other products as well, being dumped on Mexico. This contributed to a big market distortion that impacted farmers on both sides of the border. The key is this promise of prosperity. If you look back to Bill Clinton’s speech when NAFTA was first signed, he promised mutual prosperity between the three nations. This was the deal, the way this agreement was marketed to all three countries.
Oates: This seems pretty relevant for the re-negotiation of NAFTA today. What have you learned in you’re your research that can inform people following the developments right now?
Gálvez: Today, we see suddenly that NAFTA is back in the news. It was a big part of the 2016 campaign. Both Trump and Bernie Sanders really focused heavily on the issue. The narrative that’s been developed, Trump’s narrative, is that Mexico is winning at the U. S. expense. Sanders was a little bit different. He focused on this idea there are winners, but didn’t necessarily blame Mexico itself. Both of these ideas get it pretty wrong.
Working people, people who are trying to make a living in all three countries, they’re the ones who’ve experienced damage due to this trade deal. Corporations are the ones that are winning. They’re the ones that really designed NAFTA. They’re the ones in charge of the current re-negotiations. They’re the ones who determine the concessions, the regulations that need to be cut. It’s the little guy, the small farmer, the small business owners, who have experienced damage from NAFTA.
Oates: I’ve covered NAFTA and the free trade debate quite a bit. One of the key issues that seems inter-related to the outcome of pushing small farmers off the land in Mexico is an increase in migration to work in the U.S. agriculture sector. Have you looked at that at all?
Gálvez: Yes. There has been a dramatic shift in the number of Mexicans moving to work in agriculture, but often that’s meant that they have to shift sectors a bit in ways that are significant. You’ll see a lot of people from Mexico that used to be farming their own land, predominantly self-sufficient farmers, switching to day labor. These formerly self-sufficient farmers, when they work in the post-NAFTA agricultural sector still in Mexico, they might earn as little as $8 per day picking onions for someone. I know a family I interviewed for the book, they had around five hectares of land (around 12 acres) spread out in a few locations, some of that is flat, some of that in canyons. He’s able to raise corn, but they don’t make enough to support the family. His sons now work as day laborers in the egg industry, though they help with harvest when they can. The egg industry is one of the most industrialized sectors of agriculture. And so these sons make $8 or $9 per day working for industrialized egg farms. It’s a very typical story you see, that the family land no longer is able to make a living from their own land, so the younger generation is sent to work in industrial agriculture elsewhere.