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How the North American Free Trade Agreement ruined Nourishment

A Review of “Eating NAFTA”

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico is a timely, insightful, fundamental and beautifully written book. It offers a compelling analysis that challenges multiple assumptions around diet-related illness, development, progress, public health policies and neoliberalism. Through a multi-sited, multi-method interdisciplinary approach, including policy analysis, discourse analysis and ethnography, Alyshia Gálvez examines the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States and Canada through the changes to the preparation, production, consumption and appropriation of “Mexican food” in Mexico, in the U.S., and globally. It demonstrates the effects of reduced access of locally produced crops (alongside the increased access to processed foods from the U.S.) on the health of Mexican individuals and communities on both sides of the US and Mexican border, and its reverberations on labor markets and community structures. Through her ethnographic approach and a deep engagement with the communities and the foods that she has cultivated close relationships with, Galvez presents captivating descriptions of traditional Mexican foods such as tamales, tlacoyos and atole. At the same time, Galvez weaves rich and nuanced accounts of the historic, cultural, spiritual, linguistic and social qualities of Mexican cuisine, its regional and subregional variations, while making a call to respect and protect those to whom it has historically belonged.

Eating NAFTA demonstrates the urgency of responding to a clear and yet mostly invisible health crisis that manifests across borders. It offers tools for rethinking existing approaches to trade and food systems from a transnational, intersectional and structural perspective that shifts the blame that public institutions have placed on individuals (particularly women, migrants and lower-income populations). It provides alternatives to hold US and Mexican governments and corporations accountable for the impact of their economic practices and policies on human lives.

The book begins by presenting the paradox of how Mexican food has become a global phenomenon, inspiring prestigious chefs and haute-cuisine restaurants all over the world who celebrate, elevate and reinterpret its indigenous roots and ancestral processes of preparation, while profiting off conceptions of “authenticity” and the popularity of “slow food”. Meanwhile there is a lack of structural support for the people whose intangible and living heritage was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 but who are no longer able to produce or consume those very foods. Galvez shows how the production of corn in Mexico — a central part of Mexican culture and spirituality — became unsustainable after 1994 in the face of unregulated competition with the lower priced and lower quality U.S. government subsidized corn (the most heavily subsidized crop in the country). This led to the dismantling of the Mexican corn industry, the displacement of millions of campesinos who migrated to cities or to the United States, and the shift towards cultivation of other crops, including amapola (poppy).

Galvez exposes the multiple noxious dimensions of the impact of free trade in transforming social, cultural structures and ways of life in Mexico, both through migration processes that break family structures, reconfigure gender roles, and are deeply interconnected with changes in food systems and in public health outcomes. A clear and extremely concerning outcome is the issue of diet-related illness, with dramatically increased levels of obesity, diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease and chronic kidney disease among the Mexican population (in both Mexico and the US) since the mid-1990s. These illnesses are often rooted in the trauma, cumulative stress and depression associated with family separation, as well as the lack of accessibility of healthy foods and the cultures of progress and modernity linked to fast food that free trade has contributed to.

The publication of Eating NAFTA could not be more timely considering the ongoing debate around the present renegotiation of NAFTA (now renamed USMCA and currently in the process of ratification). It is also opportune given the recent shift of power in Mexico with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist politician who campaigned on promises of rebuilding a prosperous agricultural sector, equitable access to land and addressing issues of poverty and inequality, with a focus on rural areas. Galvez explains the effects of the free trade agreement in a balanced manner, considering its differential impact on labor markets and production chains on both sides of the border, with unequal distributions of gains. While it led to job-creation in Mexico in automotive industries and manufacturing, and a growth in industrial export agriculture, it did not create high-paying jobs with upward mobility and increased inequality and poverty, particularly in the countryside. Her main intervention in the debate around free trade and development is to go beyond the political economy approach and demonstrate the largely overlooked connection between free trade and negative health outcomes in the region.

While this discussion is largely absent in debates around free trade in Mexico and the U.S. (and in other regions), Galvez exposes how the Mexican government’s response to the rise in levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses reveals deeply entrenched structures of racism, classism and gender discrimination that place blame on individuals for their health outcomes. This blame is particularly directed towards indigenous and rural communities, and mostly women and mothers who are assumed to be predominantly responsible for their family’s nutrition and health. These populations are generally considered by the elites as ignorant, less developed, backward, and unclean.

Through a language of “shared responsibility” the Mexican government has launched campaigns focused on educating the population about their individual eating choices, nutrition and exercise (“chécate, mídete, muévete” / translated as “check yourself, weigh yourself, move”), without acknowledging its direct participation in the systemic changes that explain the lack of access to traditional ways of cooking and eating. These traditional forms of cooking and eating have been eroded by a market for processed foods and sweetened beverages that are cheaper, have lower nutritional value and expose the human body to ingredients and chemicals that lead to weight gain and alter organ function. The market for such products clearly emerged in the context of NAFTA with corporations obtaining more access, even in areas of the country with little to no infrastructure. Corporations — the main beneficiaries of NAFTA — bring the sodas and the easily accessible chips, instant noodle soups or packaged sliced breads into the local tienditas (small local shops). More than that, they also provide the infrastructure to support and incentivize access to these foods by offering fridges and stands, which many of these local vendors cannot afford on their own. The inability to make a living by producing locally grown corn, squash or beans, compounded by the fact that most men live in the United States and most of these families depend on remittances and government cash assistance programs, means that food is now mostly bought at these tienditas or at Walmarts. Traditional milpa-based diets, local markets and cultural practices of cooking, sharing meals, labor force participation and rhythms of life have been significantly altered.

A similar dynamic takes place across the border. Mexican migrants in the US often work in low wage sectors and hold two or more jobs. They have limited time to cook and restricted access to ingredients such as tortillas or vegetables (both in terms of cost and availability), leading to higher consumption of processed fast foods. This consumption behavior is also connected to ideas of progress, assimilation and status within the context of migration — in this case tied to the ability to buy products in a supermarket, not having to cook, and eating at McDonald’s and other fast food chains. Both in the US and Mexico, obesity and malnourishment are rarely addressed as a structural issue that did not exist pre-NAFTA. Rather, they are seen as a consequence of individual choice decontextualized from economic policies, labor market structures, limited access to preventive care, and deregulation of processed foods and sodas.

Through a narrative threaded by the intimate practices of food preparation, Eating NAFTA is able to center the human lives at stake, not just those directly experiencing this health emergency, but all those implicated as consumers of food in the region. It enjoins us to engage in questions about what we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, how much it costs and why, pushing us to seek answers beyond the local level. At the same time, it is able to connect everyday practices of cooking and eating, and the individual bodies affected, to macro structures of colonialism, capitalism, technology, with a language and analysis that is easy to understand even for those unfamiliar with the particular case of NAFTA or with the decolonial and feminist concepts and theories that frame the study within the fields of medical and cultural anthropology, political economy, migration studies, Latin American and Latinx studies.

At the end, Gálvez offers an opportunity to reflect on concrete alternatives for restructuring agricultural, economic and public health policies in the region. Eating NAFTA also shines a light on organizations and social movements focused on environmental justice, economic equality, and indigenous rights that are holding corporations accountable and supporting local production and consumption of ancestral foods including corn, amaranth or quinoa. Galvez’s study demonstrates the need for transnational and translocal scholarly approaches and policy responses to food justice that recognize that wedding “social justice, resistance and resilience to the everyday necessities of preparing and eating food can heal the body and the spirit”. Bringing together the personal and emotional aspects of food with the structural and systemic forces of globalization and neoliberal economic policy, she asks readers to reconsider ways of producing and eating food that do not “erase or erode but [build] our connections to each other and to land and culture in a continuum between the present, the past, and the future,” as restorative practices that clear a path to a more just and sustainable future with health, mobility and prosperity for all.

Alexandra Délano Alonso is Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at The New School.

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Alexandra Délano Alonso

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