Monday, April 12, 2010

Is NAFTA Making Mexico Fat?

Saw this graph from the New York Times yesterday (part of it reproduced above, from Kevin Drum), but all the commentary I saw was about the US in relation to France and Spain, nobody mentioned what immediately jumped out at me; namely that Mexico eats a shitload of food, and that most of it falls into the "packaged food" category. Turns out Mexico is actually one of the most obese countries in the world. I had no idea.

But whats behind this massive consumption of packaged food and the rise in obesity?

Well, this document, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has one take:

Processed, ready-to-eat and frozen food products are gaining in popularity in Mexico as a result of changing lifestyles, women entering the workforce and increasing per-capita income levels. Furthermore, rising levels of wealth mean a growing audience for imported foods. As purchasing power gradually increases, convenience foods become seen as a time-saving alternative to traditional meals.

Well that sure is interesting, and hey the market IS growing at 12% a year, good for Canada's agri-food business! But come on, doesn't this seem more reasonable? From New America Media:

In less than a generation, Mexicans have gone from a nation of relatively healthy people to a nation confronting an unprecedented health crisis: morbid obesity. The culprit? The NAFTA diet.


The public health crisis precipitated by the change in the Mexican diet is causing alarm among politicians. Mexico is confronting an unprecedented strain on its national health system. Since NAFTA, “there’s been a greater consumption in fats, fried foods, carbonated soft drinks and fruit drinks that contain high levels of sugar,” Tomas Gloria Requena, a deputy in Mexico’s Congress, complained.


The change in the Mexican diet, however, is only one part of a complicated equation. In the course of implementing NAFTA, Mexico has sought greater coordination with both the United States and Canada. This has meant, among other things, aligning Mexican hours to the U.S. daylight and saving time changes, which, for a nation that lies closer to the equator, means more hours in school and at work. More importantly, Mexico, after a heated debate, officially abolished the siesta -– the traditional midday closing of businesses for three or four hours to allow people to go home and share meals with their families. As a consequence, working “9 to 5” means that home-prepared meals are for the majority of Mexicans a thing of the past, and the “super-sized” fast-food alternative is just around the corner.

“I see it every day,” Salazar continued, “children given money to buy a ‘Happy Meal’ and stressed out mothers who can only think of serving a Pizza Hut pizza for dinner. Over time, the junk food takes its toll on the body.”

If Mexico hoped that NAFTA would be a ticket to becoming more like the United States, it may have gotten its wish. One of the unintended consequences of the trade agreement has been to make Mexico a nation in which morbid obesity has become a national health crisis –- just as it has with its neighbor to the north.

Yeah, correlation does not imply causation and a lot of the packaged foods Mexico is consuming comes in the form of bakery items (check out the whole graph on the NYT not just the tidbit above), but I think its probably fair to say the NAFTA diet hasn't really been a diet! And really those two explanations above are not that far apart; "changing lifestyles", "women entering the workforce", "time-saving alternative". The problem is one description sees an opportunity, one sees a looming public health crisis. My vote is for public health crisis.

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