Talking NAFTA, Food, Mexico and Beyond

This month I was honored to be part of two events* in celebration of Alyshia Gálvez’s new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food policies and the destruction of Mexico (University of California Press). Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. Her book, Eating NAFTA, exposes how the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994 between Mexico, the United States and Canada, created fundamental changes in Mexico, specifically in the country’s sustenance and its related nutritional outcomes. NAFTA dramatically altered Mexico’s food system where notions of efficiency became preferred over the importance of sustenance, nutrition, and even taste. As a result, today Mexico imports 42% of its food, mostly from the United States. Furthermore, Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA reminds us how the rural sector has long been seen in Mexico (as in other countries) as backward, blamed for the nation’s lack of development, and in need of intervention – giving way to modernization and industrialization at the expense of sustenance and people’s wellbeing. The book also addresses the rise in obesity and chronic diseases in Mexico and its transnational immigrant communities, as a result of the dietary and population shifts created by NAFTA. In doing so, Galvez makes us think critically about many of Mexico’s public health initiatives. Interventions and policies, as the lauded soda tax, may obscure the structural causes of the problem, including the role of transnational food companies.

While focused in Mexico, it is important to note that the book provides insights that can be readily applied to other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many of the transitions described in Eating NAFTA resonated with the work I have done in rural communities in Central America, including the shift in status and social norms around traditional dishes as a result of globalization.

A small store in rural El Salvador, featuring a diverse offering of ultra-processed snacks with a few locally produced goods.

Discussions about trade and NAFTA have recently been part of the news, with the President’s criticism of the agreement as a “bad deal” for the United States, and the recent signing of a new version – the USMCA – the unpronounceable acronym for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. A quick overview of the new deal by the Brookings Institute shows that the changes are mostly cosmetic and reminds us that the deal is yet to be ratified into law. While the three countries are on schedule for the December 1st signing, the next and most difficult step will be ratifying the agreement. The vote will be significantly influenced by the upcoming midterm elections:

There are reasons why both Republicans and Democrats may be reluctant to approve the deal. Republicans in Congress are wary of Trump’s protectionist instincts; Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to actively help Trump realize one of his key campaign promises. Thus, USMCA’s congressional path remains unclear. (Of course, for their part, neither Canada nor Mexico will likely protest too strenuously if the U.S. fails to ratify the new pact, so long as it allows them to keep the existing NAFTA.) – Gertz 2018, Brookings Institution

In the end, the USMCA may do little to change the lives of those most affected by these deals: the invisible rural poor, particularly in Mexico. While there is some excitement about the provisions to potentially improve labor conditions in Mexico, such provisions will not change the existing shifts in the national food environment and the transitions detailed by Gálvez and others.

Trade policies can be better at improving the overall wellbeing of the most vulnerable in the countries, but that will depend on the political will of the leaders in these countries. There is hope in the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his potential policies to make “rural Mexico great again.” During his political campaign, he endorsed a new version of the Plan de Ayala, based on the plan originally written by Mexican Revolution leader, Emiliano Zapata and his supporters in 1911. The Plan seeks to promote self-sufficiency in important crops, including corn, beans, and wheat. Most importantly, it may address many of the concerns of the rural poor, as summarized below:

The Plan de Ayala explicitly does away with policies that write off poor producers as worthy only of welfare, treating all small and medium-scale farmers as deserving of productive public investment. The Plan addresses chronic market failures in the Mexican countryside, with credit programs, crop insurance, and protection from anti-competitive practices by agribusiness buyers and sellers. It targets support to producers farming fewer than 50 acres. The Plan commits to a transition toward agro-ecology, bars transgenic crops, and creates a National System for the Protection and Improvement of Mesoamerican Agro-biodiversity, with a special program called Native Maize-Tortilla 2050 to promote the cultivation and consumption of native maize. This is just the sort of directed action that can revalue indigenous cultures and practices while actively supporting the production of native maize. – Wise 2018

Much remains to be seen.

Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA is a timely contribution with important lessons learned in these ongoing times of transition for Mexico and beyond.

See this link for upcoming book events and further information about Gálvez and her book.

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* The first event was at NYU and the second at CUNY. Video links will be posted when available.

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On Cuba’s ration book (from Repeating Islands)

Like many things in Cuba, food is a complicated subject. Variety is lacking, yet Cubans have an assured minimum food supply through the “libreta” – the Cuban ration book. The libreta was implemented after the 1959 Cuban Revolution as a way to equalize all citizens through food. In the beginning, the libreta covered most necessities. With time, items have been gradually eliminated from the libreta. Today, the libreta is used for bare necessities, prompting Cubans to supplement through the regular market. Moreover, there are ongoing conversations regarding phasing out the libreta, and replacing it with a more targeted safety net program. While the subject is not yet settled – changes will come sooner or later. This post from Repeating Islands provide an updated take on current debates on the faith of the libreta.

Repeating Islands

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A report by Hector Velasco for the Agence France Presse.

From one end of the island to the other, every Cuban can be sure of one thing: Their ration book, or “libreta,” will put at least the basics on their table at dinner time. When President Raul Castro tried several years back to do away with this enduring symbol of both equality and scarcity, he failed.

Next February, Castro, younger brother of the late revolutionary leader Fidel, will step down, and there is little sign that the ration book will go anywhere before he does.

Behind his failed effort was the major challenge facing whoever takes over running the Communist island once he steps down: how to open up the economy without a return to capitalism?

Is the ration book the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution, or its most inefficient burden? The booklet encapsulates two very different views…

View original post 568 more words

Re-linking Nutrition and Gastronomy

In his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1895, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as

a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.

Nutrition, on the other hand, is defined as

the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically:  the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances (from Merriam-Webster)

 

As these definitions show, both nutrition and gastronomy care about the  “preservation of men” (and women). Early cookbooks contained recipes that used food as medicine, and many other contain introductions teaching the readers about the nutritive qualities of foods and how to best combine them in daily menus. Today, in practice, the gastronomic and nutrition views of food seem to stand in parallel silos.  Broadly speaking, those in the culinary fields talk about foods in terms of aesthetics, texture and taste, while nutritionists tend to reduce food to nutrient and caloric values. Now, I add “broadly speaking”, as this statement is an over-generalization. The culinary and nutrition “silos” are starting to interact. There are more chefs who are also registered dietitians and dietitians who venture into culinary training.  Chefs are also engaging in food policy. Examples are found in the Plate of the Union campaign (an advocacy movement that views access to healthy, affordable foods and safe drinking water as a right, and the current food system as favoring “Big Ag”), celebrity chefs engaging in humanitarian projects, such as the work of Chef Jose Andres and Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school food (and his “food revolution”), among others.

One of my ongoing research projects seeks to uncover more linkages. In a 2016 journal article, comparing dietary guidelines in the Hispanic Caribbean, I highlighted the inclusion of the Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias de la República de Cuba (the Cuban national culinary association) in the drafting of the national dietary guidelines. Their influence is seen in the guidelines messages. For example, beyond just telling the population to consume less salt, practical culinary advice is provided to achieve this recommendation:

Flavor your food with natural condiments and aromatic herbs (cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, basil, celery, parsley, among others) and citric juices. (My translation)

Beyond just asking the consumer to eat less fat and fried foods, the guide provide some advise on how to accomplish this, while also still enjoying fried foods,

Lower the consumption of fried foods. When frying, you should cut foods in large portions, so that they absorb less fat. (My translation)

Neighboring Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic have similar culinary associations are also engaged in important food work in the country, although not readily connected with the public health nutrition sector in the country. For example, the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (and other local chefs) are working to build and solidify farm to table links in a island with a weakened agricultural sector. The Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (highlighted in my previous post) is striving to document and highlight the regional dishes in Dominican Republic.

As these examples show, chefs have an important role to improve and preserve healthy food habits in the communities they serve. This role is increasingly important amid the continued influx of ultra-processed and other globalized foods that lead to the gradual displacement of traditional fresh foods. These global changes have an often deleterious effect for consumer’s health, local producer’s livelihood and the nation’s economy. In addition, a greater (re)connection between gastronomy and nutrition can also have the needed effect of  helping us move beyond the prevailing myth that delicious food is inherently unhealthy, and that nutritious, healthy food is synonymous with bland, and tasteless dishes.

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This post is part of an ongoing research project, recently presented at the OxyFood 17 Conference, “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture”, as part of the talk titled “Taste, Health and Ethnic Cuisines: Comparing nutrition and culinary experts’ perceptions of Hispanic Caribbean diets”. 

Changing diets and a call to action

Diets are changing, and a recently published study in The Lancet Global Health journal describes how. Moving beyond measures of food availability and industry-derived reports on food imports and exports, the Global Burden of Diseases Nutrition and Chronic Diseases Expert Group provides us with a first of its kind systematic dietary assessment to characterize global dietary patterns using 325 surveys encompassing 187 countries covering almost 4.5 billion adults.

Aside from providing an excellent picture of diets worldwide, what I particularly liked about the study was the authors’ move beyond more traditional analyses to looking foods and nutrients in healthy and unhealthy patterns, separately. Healthy items were: Whole grains, fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, milk, fiber, polyunsaturated fat, seafood omega-3, plant omega-3 and calcium. Unhealthy items were: sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, processed meats, salturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol and sodium. Both sets of items were derived from scientifically established relationships between food/nutrient and health.

This approach resulted in both good and (mostly) bad news:

“Compared with low-income countries, high-income countries had higher healthy dietary pattern scores, but substantially lower unhealthy dietary pattern scores. Consumption of healthier foods and nutrients has modestly increased during the past two decades; however, consumption of unhealthy foods and nutrients has increased to a greater extent. Improvements in healthier foods were seen in high-income and middle income countries; by contrast, no improvements were seen in the poorest regions.”

The significance of these findings are that, as the authors point out, “although caloric deficits and disease burdens other than those of NCDs must not be overlooked in some low-income countries, the trends in dietary patterns we note show the urgent need to focus on improvement of diet quality among poor populations worldwide. Left unaddressed, undernutrition and deficiency diseases will be rapidly eclipsed in these populations by obesity and [non-communicable diseases, as is already occurring in India, China, and other middle-income nations.”

And this, for me, is the main takeaway of this article – the need to start moving quickly to address the growing burden of malnutrition in low and middle income countries. Yet – the task at hand is not an easy one. Governments with already low resources to address food and nutrition problems will need to devise a two pronged approach to promote and encourage the consumption of healthy foods, while at the same time devising policies that diminish the consumption of unhealthy items. It is in this second task that the difficulties lie, as they may go against market investments and interests that promote the consumption of the calorie dense, ultra-processed foods driving the widening of waistlines worldwide. These efforts need to move beyond medical, reductionist and individual-centered approaches to nutrition problems, and start encompassing the wider context in which food choices are made, including businesses, agriculture, and development policies, to name a few. It also calls for encompassing the influence of global and transnational policies, and how these affect food access and availability, food preferences and ultimately food consumption worldwide.

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Original article: Fumiaki Imamura, Renata Micha, Shahab Khatibzadeh, Saman Fahimi, Peilin Shi, John Powles, Dariush Mozaffarian. Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment. The Lancet Global Health, 2015; 3 (3): e132 DOI: 10.1016/S2214-109X(14)70381-X