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.
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.