The Link Between NAFTA And Mexico’s Obesity Crisis

In 2013, Mexico officially became the most obese country in the world. If your initial inclination is to attribute that dubious distinction solely to enchiladas, flour-tortillas, and other traditional Mexican cuisine, think again.

According to numerous reports, the liberalization of trade between Mexico and the United States has accelerated Mexico’s nutritional decline. It’s true that a rise in national income tends to coincide with rising urbanization and more sedentary lifestyles, but the connection between Mexicans’ consumption of American food and beverage products and a rising health epidemic is difficult to dismiss.

‘In 2011, Mexicans consumed 172 liters of Coke per capita, compared to the 1991 pre-NAFTA level of 69 liters per capita. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the consumption of animal fat in Mexico increased from about 34.7 grams per capita per day in 1991 to 46.9 grams per capita per day in 2009.’ (FoodTank)

That is, liberally speaking, a nearly 400% increase in the consumption of Coca-Cola in Mexico on a per-person basis since NAFTA was instituted. It’s fair to argue that other factors – specifically a rise in per-capita income among Mexicans – have also contributed to the increase in consumption of the uniquely American soda brand. But such a drastic rise would not be possible in a nation that is still relatively poor compared to most Western nations were it not for a decrease in the cost of the sugar-rich soda, thanks in large part to NAFTA’s elimination of tariffs.

It’s also compelling that studies conducted by renowned American universities showed that Mexican states varied in their rates of obesity according to their proximity to the United States. As you may guess, the Mexican states which border the U.S. saw the highest rates of obesity in the nation, while those in Mexico’s southern-most region were comprised of fitter demographics. Further, those Mexican families who had family members move to the United States for work saw a greater risk of becoming obese.

‘the two states with the highest rates, Sonora and Tamaulipas, border the United States. By contrast, the two states with the lowest rates of abdominal obesity, Oaxaca and Chiapas, are located in the very southern part of Mexico, farthest from the United States.’ (FoodTank)

The implication of these statistics is clear: the greater one’s access to the dietary options offered in the United States, the greater the risk one has of becoming overweight. Those who argue against the NAFTA/obesity link point to Mexican protests over the rising cost of corn, the production of which is heavily subsidized by the American government, as evidence that the cost of foods produced with high-fructose corn syrup remains high. However, American corn subsidies help food producers pay for the cost of producing high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient in virtually all of America’s unhealthiest dietary options. The cost of corn itself and the cost of sugary food and drinks which have been produced using high-fructose corn syrup in America and subsequently shipped to Mexico are separate issues.

While some food products that use corn as a base ingredient – tortillas, for example – were the subject of protests due to rising costs, the syrup that we derive from our subsidized abundance of American corn was less affected by rising prices. After all, Mexicans weren’t protesting the rising cost of the Coca-Cola that the nation has come to consume as if it were the only alternative to Montezuma’s revenge, they were protesting the rising cost of corn which they, in most cases, intended to use in ethanol production. This distinction is important to make when arguing the existence of a NAFTA/obesity link.

While NAFTA allowed Americans greater access than ever to fruits and vegetables from our southern and northern neighbors, the U.S. has not been quite as generous when it comes to reciprocating natural, nutrient-rich food exports.

‘20 percent of the imported watermelon we consumed in 2010-2012 also came from Mexico, compared with 5 percent in 1991-1993. As for imported avocados, 49 percent now come from Mexico, up from 0 in 1991-1993. Lots more tomatoes and papaya are coming from south of the border, too.’ (NPR)

While America has routinely shipped apples, pears, and feed-corn for livestock to our southern neighbor, it’s the processed foods that account for the greatest change in Mexican diets resulting from the liberalization of North American trade.

‘American companies are also sending Mexico the ingredients to make foods like high-fructose corn syrup; HFCS exports to Mexico are now 863 times what they were before NAFTA. And all of that ends upon the shelves of supermarkets, whose business model relies heavily on processed food. Walmart, which opened its first Mexican store in 1991, four years after it began selling groceries, now operates 2,114 stores that offer food in Mexico.’ (NPR)

One can argue that there is no ethical issue with opening international access to the foods Americans have gouged themselves on long before NAFTA’s implementation. But this isn’t intended to be a debate about ethics, it’s a documentation of the unintended side effects that NAFTA precipitated in affected societies, Mexico in particular. It’s always the consumer’s decision to indulge in the quick-serve, preservative-heavy offerings that are the products of American ingenuity. But in a nation where low-cost foods and sodas with proven addictive qualities would certainly be in high demand, the connection between NAFTA and Mexico’s status as the fattest country in the world is not a particularly surprising one.

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