As Food Trade Ballooned Under Nafta, So Did Mexican Waistlines

  • Surge in obesity is linked to U.S. food imports, study shows
  • Mexico now has highest share of overweight people in OECD

Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is calling for a rethink of the national diet.

Photographer: Alfredo Estrella/Bloomberg

Avocado toast and juice bars are all the rage for American hipsters, foodies and millennials.

And they have Nafta to thank -- at least in part. The accord has brought an abundance of fresh produce to U.S. grocers. Mexico shipped $10.5 billion of fruit and vegetables to its northern neighbor in 2016. And food trade has boomed in the other direction too. But, at least when you measure in terms of nutrition rather than dollars, Mexicans appear to be getting the worse end of the deal -- and gaining weight as a result.

That’s the finding of a study by Lorenzo Rotunno and two fellow economists published by VoxEU. They examined the effects of trade on dietary habits in Mexico, and found a direct correlation between worsening public health indicators and the growing quantities of foods such as corn, soybean, pork and dairy products imported under Nafta.

Diet Destroyers

Growth of unhealthy Mexican food and beverage imports from the U.S. outpaced healthy ones

Source: Authors' analysis of export data based on USDA guidelines

“The exposure to unhealthy foods coming from the U.S. has been an important determinant in the rise of obesity in Mexico,” Rotunno, an assistant professor of economics at Aix-Marseille University in France, said in an interview.

The economists found that growth in imports of unhealthy foods is faster than for healthy ones. They made the distinction by applying the guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which advises Americans to increase consumption of some foods and cut back on others.

Mexico’s trade opening dates back to the 1980s, and accelerated when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994. The recent study found that in about two decades since then, Mexico has seen obesity rates rise some 15 percent. The research is mostly based on data for adult females, because it’s more complete than for other population groups.

And during the Nafta years, Mexico has overtaken the U.S. to seize an unwanted crown. It now has more overweight or obese people, as a share of the population, than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club that includes more than 30 major economies.

Tipping the Scale

Among OECD countries, Mexico has the highest share of overweight or obese population

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Note: Based on most recent data available for each country

Food trade is among the many sticking points in negotiations to overhaul Nafta, the latest round of which is due to start in Mexico City next week.

President Donald Trump’s main focus has been on manufacturing: he blames the accord for lost factory jobs. But Trump has to keep one eye on America’s farmers too. Many of them backed him in the election -- and they’re solid supporters of Nafta. Withdrawal from the pact would be “catastrophic for farmers, based on the fact that Mexico is our number one export market for corn,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said last week.

So the U.S. is pushing for new terms that would enable it to expand agricultural exports to Mexico. Meanwhile in Mexico, one politician is loudly demanding less of them.

Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador regularly hits out at the terms of food trade with the U.S., saying impoverished Mexican farmers have been driven from their land. He’s calling for a rethink of the national diet, so that Mexicans eat more food from their own country.

It seems to be working. Amlo, as he’s known, is ahead in almost every poll for the July vote -- so it’s possible he could be the man who has to sign off on any new Nafta.

— With assistance by Nacha Cattan, and Andrew Mayeda

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