Tortillas and Trade: Did NAFTA Cause Mexico’s Diabetes Crisis?
President Donald Trump has criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it took jobs away from U.S. workers. Despite his complaints, NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, opened Mexico’s economy to U.S. investment and products. It also dramatically impacted Mexican agriculture, diet, rural life, and public health, according to Professor Alyshia Gálvez (Lehman College). NAFTA “shattered foodways in Mexico,” she writes in her book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico.
NAFTA industrialized Mexican agriculture, which led to “the death of the family farm.” While U.S. consumers benefit from fruits and vegetables imported year-round from Mexico, fresh produce in many Mexican diets has declined.
Mexico now imports 42 percent of its food from the U.S., with massive increases in imports of processed food, sugar, and even corn — for centuries Mexico’s most important and iconic crop. Meanwhile consumption of handmade corn tortillas, once a staple of the Mexican diet, is down, while their price is up.
Diabetes is now the primary cause of death in Mexico, afflicting nearly 16 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in Canada, Gálvez writes. In fact, the risk of dying from diabetes is twice as high in Mexico as it is in the U.S., and kidney and heart disease have also soared there.
Public health campaigns including a soda tax are now underway in Mexico. But they emphasize individual behavior and responsibility for moderate consumption and exercise, Gálvez notes, rather than countering the economic and cultural changes that caused the crisis.
Ironically, as Mexicans move away from traditional recipes, the global food elite has swarmed over “authentic” Mexican food and once-obscure ingredients like cilantro, tomatillos, calabaza squash, and verdolaga greens. “Gringos” now fetishize handmade tortillas, Gálvez notes, while “Mexicans have become the world’s top consumers of instant noodles.”