NAFTA’s influence on Mexico: an interview with Alyshia Gálvez

It’s been 25 years since the U.S., Mexico and Canada signed the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement. The deal has long been controversial among farmers and labor unions, and that controversy has only grown as President Trump attempts to renegotiate aspects of the trade deal.

Much of the domestic discussion of NAFTA’s effects have centered on American workers, eaters, and growers. But the deal has had just as large an impact on Mexico’s economy, workforce, and agriculture. In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico (University of California Press, September 2018)Alyshia Gálvez, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York, writes of how Mexico has been affected by the trade deal, and what possibilities for better deal-making could emerge if Americans took seriously the concerns of their neighbor to the south.

“The middle and working classes in [the U.S. and Mexico] are navigating a transforming and globalizing economy that might be best seen as producing common threats,” she writes in the book’s preface. “Characterizations of NAFTA as an encroachment by Mexico on U.S. prosperity obscure the fact that the working classes in both countries have been victimized by shifts in their respective economies.”

I spoke with Gálvez about Mexico’s current agricultural economy, the role of food corporations in the  Mexican diet, and how to craft a trade deal that works well for the residents of all countries involved.

You write in the book of Mexico’s shift from food sovereignty to food security in the aftermath of NAFTA: “If self-sufficiency in food, food sovereignty, is a commonsense notion involving a nation’s ability to provide for its populations’ basic needs, food security is a purely market-based concept … A nation can be maximally food secure even when it produces no food whatsoever, if it has the resources to purchase all of the food its people need.” What are some elements of the trade deal that led to that change?

There was a conceptual shift, which didn’t start with NAFTA, but it definitely was exemplified by NAFTA, in terms of the idea that Mexico didn’t really need to worry about food sovereignty anymore. There had previously been very robust policy to support agriculture and to make sure that there was an efficient and effective system for connecting food producers and consumers. And by NAFTA, that was dismantled.

There was a withdrawal of subsidies in terms of a lot of the price supports for small scale producers. The idea of agriculture needing to be bigger and more “efficient” definitely didn’t start with NAFTA, but the simultaneous abandonment of the small-scale producer definitely did.

I think there is such an increasing awareness here in the U.S. of the problems with our food system, but I think there’s still a little bit of a blind spot about how the problems don’t stay on this side of the border. [The U.S. has a] symbiotic, parasitic relationship with Mexico. [NAFTA is] not producing the most balanced system by any measure. Not in terms of biodiversity, not in terms of the local economic needs in each country, not in terms of health needs.

One of the themes in the book is the individualization of responsibility for health, especially when it comes to diet-related illness. What’s a better way to think about the relationship between health outcomes, corporate power, and international trade?

One of the most effective metaphors is the idea of Frieden’s pyramid, in which the bottom of the pyramid are the structural factors, and as you go further up it’s more micro, individual, behavioral factors. We tend to have a little bit of an iceberg understanding of the pyramid, where we see the individual behavioral factors [to be the most important]. And because of the bias of being in an individual body, we like to think of ourselves as being in control of our health. We don’t like to necessarily think of ourselves as being trapped in a larger system or a larger structure that is impinging on our lives and making us sick.

That sort of logic, which is definitely not scientific, has been exploited by corporations. Because they can say well, you as an individual choose what to consume. And that messaging of individual choice really suits their profit motive, because it deflects any sort of larger accountability for the health consequences of their product.

But when we zoom out we really see that it defies logic to say that people suddenly developed a taste for sweets or developed a taste for salty snacks. Humans have always like sweet and salty things. What has changed is the landscape. These industrialized food products have come to occupy a much larger percentage of what’s available, what’s affordable, and what we have access to and what we choose to eat. Are we still making choices? Yes. But the entire landscape of what’s available has changed.

Our whole way of living has changed. The kinds of family structures and households that are available to us have changed. People can’t necessarily live in the family context where some members of the family would prepare meals while other members of the family are working outside the home. Jobs are more precarious and farther afield than they might have been historically. All these things contribute to the ground having shifted.

And then governments are making choices, as well, in terms of how they frame prosperity and how they frame the future, progress, economic wellbeing. All of these decisions are favoring some things over other things. And they’ve really given a pass to the corporations. Small scale agriculture is seen as anachronistic. So, these choices ripple out and get into our bodies in ways that we don’t have control over, even while we still have some choices available to us.

You write about how NAFTA’s negotiation was informed by “very specific historical ideas about the countryside and its inhabitants, and their eligibility and capacity for democracy, productivity, innovation, and change.” How do perceptions of Mexicans and Mexico affect ongoing trade negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico today?

There are simultaneous things happening. In Mexico, there are people who sustain the idea that Mexico is prosperous and has fully walked into the 21st century, has one of the most efficient, highly skilled, responsible labor forces. And if we look at certain data points, that’s an argument that can be sustained. There’s been a sort of rebranding in Mexico of itself as this high-tech paradise for manufacturing.

Oddly, that rebranded image of Mexico has not reached the level of U.S. awareness as far as I can see. There are very few people talking in the United States about Mexico in any way that is separate from either the really stupidly racist ideas of the rapist/murderers/drug dealers trope, the kind of humble, poor workers still trying to migrate and clamor into the United States trope — which is also outdated even if it’s a little more benevolent than the rapists and murderers trope—and the idea of them being kind of conniving free-trade bandits trying to steal jobs from U.S. workers.

It’s an odd situation and that does creep into the negotiations, because we have a profound level of ignorance around Mexico. Around how important it is, but also how valuable it is as a friend and how much U.S. goals could be advanced if we saw Mexico as a partner instead of as a threat. There’s just such profound ignorance in the country about Mexico.

You wrestle with the question of whether “ancestral methods” of farming can be “restored with benefits for health and prosperity for all.” What policy changes could happen in Mexico’s trade relationship with the U.S. to support that restoration?

One of the things we need is greater consciousness of the way that trade trickles out to these other aspects of life. I don’t think people even really necessarily think about [NAFTA] as a food deal, or our food system being so intimately connected to our health and the health of our neighbors. And I think we also have a cognitive dissonance of migration, too. If we agree that the economy benefits from lowering trade barriers, why not think about lowering other types of barriers to the circulation of people and ideas and culture?

If we brought to the table a more holistic understanding of how everyday people in the United States and in Mexico have a lot in common and share common goals and are victimized by a lot of the policies and implications of NAFTA in terms of deregulation and the unleashing of corporate greed globally, if we put ourselves in solidarity with other people around the world, not just in Mexico, we might be more demanding of trade deals that are supportive of our communities.The way it’s set up now, corporations are the beneficiaries.

When I started this project, my eyes would glaze over when I thought about trade. Trade deals don’t seem to have anything to do with our everyday lives. But I was just so struck by the ripple effect of these things, and how damaging they can be and how misguided they are. And how often these debates happen in many cases right in front of us, and we don’t care, because it hasn’t been framed in a way that we think is relevant to us.

When my students in the Bronx say I can’t afford to eat vegetables or I can’t afford to eat fruit, it’s heartbreaking. But it’s a result of decisions that are being made in Washington and beyond Washington about what kind of food system we have. A vegetable should not be more expensive than a Hostess cupcake or a bag of chips. These are decisions that are being made to favor a certain kind of food system.