Eating NAFTA: A Conversation With Alyshia Gálvez

Photo by Eli Duke/Flickr

We’ve been hearing a lot about Mexico, immigration, and trade policies in the news recently. At the same time, there seems to be a boom in the appreciation for Mexican cuisine with celebrity chefs and upscale restaurants praising the art of traditional Mexican peasant foods like the humble tortilla. But for a lot of Mexicans, tortillas and other traditional foods have actually been replaced by processed foods, leading to a national health crisis. For author Alyshia Gálvez, this paradox is not a coincidence. It’s the logical outcome of policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA.

Kicking off our 2019 season of the Real Food Reads bookclub and podcast, I spoke with Gálvez about her new book Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico.


Tanya: One of the threads in your book that I found fascinating is something we talk about a lot at Real Food Media, which is the power of stories: who has the power to shape the dominant narrative about things that affect our everyday lives. And it occurred to me that even the title of your book flips the script on a story we’ve been hearing over the last couple of years, especially from the Trump administration, which is that trade agreements have been unfair to the United States while every other country has benefited. Are you encountering these kinds of perceptions about who the “winners” and “losers” of NAFTA are?

Alyshia: Yes, these are really powerful ideas that are circulating in our society that frame the United States as being at a disadvantage as a result of trade. The problem is that they overlook the reality, which is that it’s all of us who aren’t billionaires who are being victimized by these trade deals and by our current economic policies. It’s the story the corporations are peddling because they want us to think that the growth of inequalities and the growth of public health consequences are somehow the fault of others, the fault of immigrants, and not the result of policies and choices that have been made about what to prioritize.

We’re not at the table when these things are decided. Corporations do get their voices heard, but average people who are trying to make our way in a changing landscape of economic opportunities and food choices are not really entering into the conversation. And by the same token, we don’t think trade negotiations have anything to do with us, but they affect all of us directly.

Tanya: Are there also ways the United States has actually benefited from NAFTA? Ways we might take for granted, like for example access to year-round produce, which hasn’t always been the case, right?

Alyshia: I had an avocado with lime squeezed on it with my lunch today and that would not have been possible in December in New York City without NAFTA. Globalized trade makes fresh produce available year round no matter what climate we live in. So we do benefit in the United States, but we don’t always connect the dots in terms of how the food system is shaped by factors including labor costs, immigration, trade, and corporate interests — like the consolidation of massive industrial farms that are growing much of the produce that we consume.

Tanya: What I found so striking in your analysis is that traditional ways of growing, preparing, and eating food in Mexico that survived the extreme violence of the European conquest, colonialism, industrialization, and urbanization, may not survive NAFTA or the neoliberal era. This points to how violent NAFTA has been. I don’t think most people would see it as on par with, say, the Spanish conquest.

Alyshia: There is a destruction of ways of life that is unprecedented accompanying these trade decisions. Look, for example, at “milpa-based cuisine,” which is the corn-centered diet of Mesoamerican people. The milpa is where the corn is grown, but historically it was corn, squash, and beans intercropped together — the typical “three sisters” as they’re sometimes called in English. This creates a biodiversity that’s quite sustainable: replenishing the nutrients in the soil, even the way the plants hold each other up physically and prevent wind damage and erosion. And together those three foods — corn, beans, and squash — provide pretty much a complete diet. They would be accompanied, of course, by chiles and tomatoes as well as a small amount of animal products. But this is really the core of the diet and it lasted thousands of years.

We know that the Spanish brought lard and meat and milk and they had strong ideas about how civilized people needed to eat pork. They also elevated, for example, bread and meat into considerations of social status. So the higher the social status and the more urban someone was, the more money they had and the more meat, dairy, and bread they would consume.

But we still see the vast majority of people in Mesoamerica having corn as their primary food staple all through the colonial period and through most of the 20th century. It’s only with NAFTA that we really see a dramatic threat to the centering of corn in the diet. As corn is cultivated less and consumed less, we see a rise in diet-related illness. We see diabetes, obesity, and other consequences as people are growing less of their food, consuming more processed foods, and consuming more industrialized commodity corn in the form of corn syrup, corn starches, corn flours, and fewer traditional applications of corn like tortillas, tamales, and tlacoyos.

Tanya: Can you explain the connection between the implementation of NAFTA and the erosion of milpa-based cuisine?

Alyshia: Mexican trade negotiators entered into the NAFTA negotiations wanting to modernize Mexico’s economy and wanting to do so fast and dramatically. They sought to convert Mexico’s economy away from small-scale agriculture and towards manufacturing.

They realized this would involve displacement; that it would involve some pain. But they anticipated that 500,000 rural people would be displaced by NAFTA. You have to multiply that number by 20 in order to reach the number of people who would be displaced in the first ten years of NAFTA. Ten percent of the Mexican population comes to reside in the United States by a decade after NAFTA going into effect.

In addition, there was an argument made that, for Mexico’s food security, it needed to lower barriers to US corn coming in. So almost immediately the protections for Mexican corn were suspended and forgotten. The problem with that is that the US can’t give Mexico Mexican corn. The corn that people use for tortillas and tamales is not the corn that we grow in Iowa, which is really only suitable for industrial purposes: the syrups, starches, animal feed, and now ethanol that use up most of that corn. So Mexico has a threat to its heirloom varieties of corn at the same time that it starts seeing this influx of industrial corn in the form of processed foods and commodity grain. And that puts even more pressure on small-scale farmers.

Meanwhile, they take away government supports for farmers that help get their products to urban markets to help stave off hunger in the cities while sustaining small-scale agriculture. As all of these protections for the small-scale corn industry are taken away, people are forced to leave. They leave their rural communities for the cities and if they can’t make it in the cities, they leave for the United States. And at the same time we see Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven and lots of other industrial food producers and retailers inserting themselves into the rural market in ways they never did before.

Tanya: You talk about the decline in consumption of corn tortillas in Mexico. The flip side of the coin is a sort of boom in the US and other parts of the world of foreigners “appreciating” (and profiting from) Mexican food.

Alyshia: It’s what my mentor Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialist nostalgia” — the mourning of that which you yourself have destroyed. Sadly, they’re saying that people have not appreciated or treasured this way of preparing and consuming food. And as these foods are being lost, they then become available for “elevation” by these top chefs who can claim to have discovered something or to salvage something. And it justifies the prices, right? Because if you’re salvaging something that’s en route to extinction, then you can charge whatever you want. But if everybody has access to fantastic hand-ground corn tortillas, then nobody can get away with charging those prices.

Tanya: Another important takeaway from your book is about this myth of personal responsibility. As you point out, research shows that personal behavior is really not the main cause of chronic disease at all. So why is this myth so persistent?

Alyshia: Because the corporations want it to be. In the early 70s, corporations made a concerted effort to view any regulation on any industry as an attack on all industries. So they joined together to frame everything as belonging to the realm of market choice and personal responsibility. For example, the effort to get seat belts in cars was framed as an impingement on freedom. It sounds absurd to us today, but there was a personal freedom argument against seat belts.

And we hear these same arguments being made today as far as soda and processed foods. That it’s paternalistic to regulate foods and beverages, that the market provides a diversity of products and if people just consumed responsibly and exercised enough, there would be no public health problems.

But this overlooks so many of the structurally violent changes that have occurred in the economy. The way that people not only are pushed off the land, but are also pushed into ways of life that are precarious. Even if they don’t migrate, families are divided by work opportunities and have to travel long distances within their own country. So you don’t see the traditional extended family that once sustained traditional ways of eating. It’s a labor-intensive way of preparing and cooking food centered on family dynamics that requires a certain amount of continuity in terms of family relationships. And we see that being torn asunder.

“We hear that if people just consumed responsibly and exercised enough, there would be no public health problems. But this overlooks so many of the structurally violent changes that have occurred in the economy.”

So what do people have when they’re commuting six hours a day and have very little disposable income? Instant noodles suddenly become a reasonable, convenient alternative. They provide calories for someone who needs a quick shot of food in order to keep working and commuting.

And then when Mexico begins to recognize that it has an epidemic, it begins to frame the rise in diabetes — which claims more lives every year than the Drug War has in every year combined — they come up with a multi-sectoral government campaign to address it. But what we see is the blame being put on people who have diabetes and on people who are overweight or obese to eat less and exercise more.

What gets overlooked is the complete transformation of the food system as well as issues like trauma, which has a significant impact on the way the body metabolizes sugar. These sorts of social transformations are not without cost. We see a dramatic correlation between diet-related illness and histories of violence and abuse and depression. So we have to have a trauma-informed understanding of the economy and see the ways that people may not be in need of education to tell them how to eat, but may be in need of a different economy where they can live sustainable lives with the people that they love.

Tanya: You use a phrase that I really love, which is “human-scaled food system.” I think what you’re saying now really speaks to the fact that as human beings, we experience pain and loss and suffering and trauma and our food system needs to recognize that.

Alyshia: Absolutely. You know we talk a lot about inequality and labor rights when we talk about food justice, but we have to also be attentive to the pain and trauma that underlie that. When you have people experiencing tremendous dislocation, prolonged separation from family members through our broken immigration system, detention and deportation, and dislocation internally in Mexico.

We can see these instabilities radiate out and they affect every aspect of life. So rather than wagging our finger at people and telling them to go do Zumba — which is essentially what a lot of these government programs are doing — we need to look at: What are the priorities for development? How are development and prosperity being defined? Are people’s interests being met?

Tanya: What are your thoughts on the way forward? Can you talk a little bit about your cautioning against being enticed by market-based solutions that just end up promoting more consumerism versus real solutions that are based in justice?

Alyshia: Well, one thing I don’t want people to do is to stop eating tacos. Eat all the tacos. But we should ask ourselves, who’s preparing them? Where are the ingredients coming from? Whose stories are being told in the food we’re eating and whose stories are being omitted? And how can we speak out greater justice in the food system? There are a lot of ways to do that. One is to look to some of the movements in the United States and Mexico of people advocating for decolonized eating and food sovereignty. The new president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), is saying Mexico needs to be food sovereign again. We’ll see how that plays out, but that could have really important implications for the countryside seeing investment and support again.

There was a reason Trump was trying to hustle to get “NAFTA 2.0” signed literally on the last day of the Enrique Peña Nieto presidency. Because Trump didn’t want to face the new Mexican president, who probably wouldn’t have signed it. But we’ll see if the congresses go along with it. So we do have a space for articulating to our elected representatives what we would like to see in this deal and in future deals — a human-scaled vision of development that puts people at the center. That supports small-scale growers and biodiversity. And that supports the rainbow we want to see on our plate, not only “kale eating” as a kind of elitist practice, but as a way to reconnect to land and community.


Alyshia Gálvez is Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the author of Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants and Patient Citizens, Immigrant Mothers: Mexican Women, Public Prenatal Care, and the Birth-weight Paradox.

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