Author Argues NAFTA Boosted Food Corporations, Harmed Mexicans' Health

Aug 28, 2018

The United States and Mexico announced this week there’s a tentative deal in their renegotiation of the nearly 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

A new book, "Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico," looks at the connections between the agricultural and food trade policies that the policy has brought about.

Author Alyshia Galvez is a professor of Latin American and Latino Students at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She spoke with Harvest Public Media on Aug. 24. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

HPM: NAFTA started in 1994, took away all the tariffs on ag and food-related goods for the most part (aside from the current tariffs that they've put on pork, cheese and bourbon.) Mexico gets about $18.6 billion worth of ag imports from the U.S. and 42 percent of its food from the U.S. Is that straight-up food or is that like ingredients for food that could be processed or manufactured in Mexico?

Galvez: I think when we think in terms of what our grandparents might've considered to be food … a lot of that 40 percent is not food by that definition. It is food in a looser sense, in terms of being both things that are directly edible as well as things that go into food production, including in the biggest sector, which is our industrial corn production.

HPM: On the other side, the U.S. imported $24 billion worth of ag goods from Mexico. Those are really high-value veggies, fruits, nuts. It's kind of a trade deficit for the U.S. and we have a higher amount of things like corn going, but the value of the products coming here are more expensive. What does the ag trade mean for normal Mexicans or Americans, in general?

Galvez: Lately, there's been this framing of Mexico being a winner and the U.S. being a loser in terms of the trade deal, and that framing often is a result of that simple math of the trade deficit.

But I think if we take a closer look … it's a much more complicated picture. The reality is that the trade deal has benefited mostly large-scale corporations, so it's contributed to the consolidation of food production and distribution on both sides of the border. ...

So, (the U.S. is) getting a lot of berries and mangoes and limes and avocados that we've developed a real taste for in the last 20 years and didn't necessarily eat that much of previously. That’s a win for us both in terms of our tastes and our availability of things year-round and also our health.

But it's a little bit of a bad deal in terms of how it frames our food systems in both countries: It basically liberates us in the United States from growing what are called specialty crops … But then in exchange, we give Mexico kind of the worst of our food system; ingredients that go into industrialized food processing that have been associated with diet-related illness.

Alyshia Galvez is an author and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Credit Courtesy of Alyshia Galvez

HPM: What have you found about small-scale farmers (in Mexico) when it comes to NAFTA?

Galvez: Small-scale farming obviously has never been easy. … It's high-risk, low-reward, and it often depends on a lot of complex fabric of individuals and communities and institutions to help support the small-scale farmers. ...

In order to get into NAFTA, Mexico had to agree to undo a lot of the things that helped support small-scale farmers. So, historically it has really been very proactive in supporting the countryside in terms of food distribution because Mexico urbanized very rapidly in the 20th century; there was a very elaborate system for getting the food that people in cities needed to the cities from the farm.

… (Mexico's) protection for corn was phased out as part of NAFTA. The U.S. didn't get rid of its subsidies, which is part of the imbalance of the deal in terms of U.S. being a more dominant partner that got more of what it wanted out of the deal than Mexico could ask for. ...

There was a massive triggering of migration. Mexico wanted to what it called “depeasantize” the countryside. They wanted people to move from farming into other kinds of jobs, into manufacturing, into other jobs that they associated with a high-tech industrialized economy. And we can see the logic of that, there are a lot of good economic reasons why that might have been seen as an appropriate policy. … A lot of the other issues that we see today that are still controversial in terms of immigration and border security are in many ways a result of these decisions.

HPM: Let's shift to health. Obesity rates are up. And 15 to 16 percent of the Mexican population has diabetes now; it's the leading cause of death in Mexico, according to The New York Times and NPR stories. So what's NAFTA's role when it comes to health issues?

Galvez: Really, Mexico bargains the health of its people in exchange for a model of economic development. It wasn't necessarily an intentional trade-off in the early phases, but today the evidence is there, the writing is on the wall and we don't see any sort of accountability or acknowledgement of the way that the entire transformation of the food system has had negative health consequences.

It's easy to say, "Well, you know, if you exercise more, then this wouldn't be happening." But when we see these kind of epidemic-level statistics of the rise in these ailments, we have to ask ourselves what's happening at the policy level that's contributing to the problem.

HPM: Toward the end of the book, you argue that citizen-consumers are "less protected under trade deals" like NAFTA. But do trade deals necessarily need to be made for the protection of the people or is it the protection of the state?

Galvez: All three countries in NAFTA are a democracy and I do believe — you know, call me naive — and I do believe that our state should be at the service of the people and that our policies should be at the service of the people.

I think we can have good-faith debate about how we get there and what's the best way to do it is. I think there have been a lot of interesting, and in some cases, balanced debates about whether, for example, protectionism is a good economic policy, whether foreign direct investment is a good economic policy. …

We can make an argument that what's in the interest of U.S. corporations is in the interest of the U.S. people. But I think it's getting harder to sustain that argument when we see this sort of a boundless, greed that tramples on, in some cases, the rights and health of populations. We do as citizens have to pay more attention to these deals and see what we're getting out of them and see if the people who are most interested in these deals happening are interested in them for the right reasons, for the reasons that they say or because of profit motive.

With NAFTA, there was the stated purpose, which was friendship and cooperation and mutual prosperity. But then there was the reality, which was there were economic interests that were really driving the train on this and pushing for it to happen … in the specific way that it did. And so it doesn't benefit us all equally, and it doesn't benefit the little guy in either country. …

President Donald Trump has made renegotiating NAFTA a focus of his administration.
Credit Michael Vadon / Flickr

HPM: (NAFTA is) being renegotiated at the moment. … and it's mostly about manufacturing. It seems like some of the things that maybe they would have wanted — some nutrition labels and seasonal curbs (on produce) — don't seem to be major players. Is that a positive or negative non-development when it comes to new deal to be ignoring agriculture?

Galvez: Yeah, there's some strange things happening: Agriculture is being ignored, Canada is being sidelined … Historically, we were friends. We had levels of collaboration, of creative production in all sorts of realms that we just don't see today. We treat our neighbors as if they were enemies. … if we had a little bit of imagination, envision some sort of partnership that would be mutually beneficial, that would lead to greater prosperity, greater freedom, greater peace among all three countries of North America. ...

We all have an increased amount of dependence on one another and it would be a lot better if we did collaborate and if we did articulate what we need to get out of the deal. But the U.S. needs labor, the U.S. needs a lot of the production capacity that Mexico provides in the ag sector as well as in the manufacturing sector. Mexico needs greater capital investment. It needs some modernization improvements in some of its sectors.

It's going to deal with China and Europe in a much more active way if the U.S. doesn't start being a better friend and neighbor.

HPM: Is there any reason that (incoming Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador) would bow out of NAFTA if the sought-after sunset clause (is) part of the deal?

Galvez: It's always possible. I think that he is not … the firebrand that some have painted him to be. … He's already shown himself to be quite willing to have conversations about global investment, have conversations with multinational corporations.

One thing that I do think is quite refreshing ... is he has a stance that favors Mexican food security and food sovereignty. Not just the ability to purchase food on the global market, but to continue producing foods so that Mexico is playing a bigger role in addressing its own food needs instead of importing 40 percent of its food. …

It seems like our forecasting capacities of many of us have been limited by just the unpredictability of what's been happening in the last few years. But hopefully, we can start seeing some trends that will lead to a little bit more foresight, a little bit more planning and cooperation for mutual benefit down the line.

Erica Hunzinger is the editor of Harvest Public Media, and is based at KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter: @ehunzinger