Review: Eating NAFTA

Alyshia Gálvez’s 2018 book Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico approaches changes in foodways in the country since the infamous North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. It looks primarily at the transformations in the ways Mexicans eat, but also at the systems of food production, distribution and marketing and how they’ve changed over the past decades.

In Eating NAFTA, Gálvez calls on fieldwork carried out between rural areas in the central Mexican state of Puebla and the state of New York; she reflects on inequality and high-end dining; and she dives into statistics regarding food related illness among Mexicans in Mexico and among those who have migrated to the United States.

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico by Alyshia Gálvez, University of California Press, September 2018.

Eating NAFTA begins with the story of Aura, a woman from a small town in Puebla who lived for years in New York City. While in the US, Aura slowly stopped eating the “beans, tortillas, eggs, squash, herbs and occasionally meat or chicken” she grew up with, and began to increase her consumption of meat and soft drinks. After returning back to her village with a fair amount of savings, Aura opened a convenience store. But instead of enjoying economic stability later in her life, she found herself battling diabetes and fearing for the health of her son. Gálvez makes clear that Aura’s story is far from exceptional.

Throughout the book, Gálvez does an excellent job of shifting the narrative away from blame and individual choices towards the systems that determine the availability and accessibility of healthy food for Mexicans at home and in the United States. She writes: “Economic transformation has not only entailed development in the broad sense but has also specifically promoted the market penetration and affordability of processed foods while simultaneously stunting the market reach and affordability of basic subsistence, minimally processed, and locally produced foods.”

Diabetes and other diet related illnesses have increased worldwide in past decades. Eating NAFTA makes the case that Mexico has been particularly hard hit. This is, of course, of particular interest in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, as many of the complicating factors for those who become extremely ill and even die from COVID-19 are related to diet. Gálvez convincingly proposes that we “…consider the massive proliferation of diet-related illness as a kind of structural violence–a result of policy decisions and priorities.”

She goes on to make a compelling argument that this structural violence makes it more difficult for people and communities to make demands regarding the economy and the political system. The transnationalization of Mexican foodways, which has tended to pull the poorest people away from healthy, locally grown food while flooding the market with imported and processed food, undermines not only community health, she writes, but also local autonomy.

The centrality of corn to traditional diets in Mexico provides the consummate example of this transformation, and is a major theme of Eating NAFTA. Gálvez describes how the concentration of the production of tortillas and cornmeal, as well as massive corn imports from the United States, have meant “Older methods for processing and distributing corn are no longer practical or the norm for most people.” Among other things, this means landrace (criollo) corn is increasingly under threat in Mexico, which now imports 40 per cent of its corn from its northern neighbour. The diet related implications of importing so much corn from the US go beyond the partial destruction of Mexico’s food sovereignty. “…What we see as a result of increased US corn in the Mexican market is increased consumption of processed foods that use corn byproducts (mostly syrups and starches) accompanying a decline in consumption of tortillas.”

According to Gálvez, “The idea that Mexican corn is inherently inefficient is a recurring theme, traceable back to the conquest era –but in the last few decades it is US corn production that provides the counterpoint to Mexico’s, shaping ideas about progress and modernity.” Eating NAFTA points out that the labor time needed to produce a ton of corn in the United States is 1.2 hours, while in Mexico it is 17.8 days. That said, most of the corn grown in the US “cannot be consumed directly, the way Mexican corn can be eaten fresh (elotes and esquites) and for grain (in the form of masa for tortillas or tamales).” Eating NAFTA goes on to examine in some detail how arguments around productivity and efficiency lead to a kind of faulty logic regarding where corn should be grown and by who.

One of the most original sections in Eating NAFTA is about the Pujol paradox, named after Pujol, chef Enrique Olvera’s elite México City restaurant. I will admit to sometimes waking up at night thinking about Pujol’s mole madre, which I tried when a friend visiting from New York City took me to the fancy Polanco restaurant. Our meal at Pujol that day cost nearly $600, well above the monthly minimum wage in Mexico. Gálvez suggests that the elevation of corn-based cuisine “can only attain such a high value globally by being lost to those who customarily ate it.”

Gálvez’s argument that the erosion of ancestral foodways via land concentration and industrialization are necessary precursors for traditional foods to be prepared by elite chefs is persuasive. These chefs, she writes, “rationalize their stratospheric prices as the cost of their salvage of methods and ingredients that would otherwise be unappreciated and in the process of slipping away.” Another section of the book is devoted to understanding how food technologies and processed food connect to women’s reproductive labor (which also tends to be invisibilized through the celebration of world renowned, often male, chefs).

“The production of tortillas for an average household prior to the mechanical grinding of corn required about forty hours of labor per week, including the nixtamalization of corn with mineral lime, grinding of corn, kneading of masa, and hand shaping and cooking of tortillas,” writes Gálvez. Thus, the mechanization of tortilla production was “a linchpin for the imagined liberation of middle-class women” in Mexico, although of course, the reality for many women in Mexico today looks quite different.

The overall tenor of Eating NAFTA is one of terrible loss; even the subtitle suggests the book is about the “destruction of Mexico.” But at times it seems Gálvez glosses over the resilience and ongoing presence of non-corporate food systems that reach back hundreds of years, especially in urban environments like the city of Puebla.

Her descriptions of Puebla as a super modern city bearing a “striking resemblance to Los Angeles, California” where citizens use cards to pay for everything and “the car is king” are specific to the city’s exclusive south (especially Angelopolis and Lomas de Angelopolis), though she doesn’t make that clear. Rather, Gálvez seems to suggest that beyond Puebla’s colonial old city, wealthy areas make up most of the urban footprint. This is a far cry from what things look like on the ground in the metropolitan area of over two million.

While indeed Puebla does have gated, upscale suburbs and a massive esplanade featuring exclusive, US style malls, it is also home to huge amounts of social housing and low and middle income high rises and walk-ups, as well as dozens of markets and outdoor tianguis that bring together fruit and vegetable sellers, butchers, fishmongers and food vendors in cash-only settings, sometimes outside the purview of state and local governments.

A much richer and more textured account of popular life and especially the organization of food and market vendors in the city of Puebla is Sandra C. Mendiola Garcia’s 2017 book Street Democracy: Vendors, Violence and Public Space in Late Twentieth Century Mexico, which is surprisingly absent from Gálvez’s bibliography.

There were two moments while reading Eating NAFTA that I felt less than sated, desiring that the author provide more explanation and deeper detail. Both came as Gálvez used the same formulation to shyly advance two of her most provocative ideas.

First, she writes, “It is possible that the countries the United States has interfered in the most, with the highest level of migration to the United States and the highest levels of foreign direct investment, will demonstrate the highest rates of diet related illness.” Later, she goes on to note, “It’s possible that being treated as Mexican in the United States is as detrimental to health as any potential genetic predisposition, as time in the US is a predictor for the onset of disease.”

Further development of these hypotheses is crucial, but unfortunately Eating NAFTA doesn’t pursue either. That said, Gálvez’ strong arguments and the data she presents about politics, economics, migration and the transformation of foodways; as well as her explorations into many other aspects of food in Mexico, make the book well worth reading.

“We can see that the aftermath of NAFTA is not just a changed food system, but in fact a revision of the relationship between the state and its people,” writes Gálvez. This quote provides a powerful example of Eating NAFTA’s synthetic, accessible, and critical scholarship, which doubles as a call to action for researchers and activists to consider food and diet as an integral part of Mexican political economy.

This review was originally published in Interface: a Journal for and about Social Movements.

Review Author:

Dawn Marie Paley is author of Drug War Capitalism. She’s lived in Puebla since 2014.