Category Archives: neo-liberal public policy

Review: Eating Nafta

 

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico. Alyshia Gálvez. University of California Press. 2018. 260pp. ISBN:9780520291812.

Joan Gross

Oregon State University

Alyshia Gálvez has written a very important and timely book about the connectedness of international trade agreements, migration, diet-related diseases and the loss of biodiversity. She focuses on the two decades plus since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and its impact on the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Gálvez interweaves large scale statistics from reliable sources with her own ethnographic encounters with people from various walks of life, rural and urban, labor migrants and politicians. She complements her decades-long ethnographic fieldwork with discourse analysis and policy analysis, linking the micro with the macro. She pays particular attention to the changing lifestyles of rural Mexicans who no longer can support themselves with milpa agriculture since the USA began dumping subsidized corn in Mexico. Not only have their diets changed, but they can no longer maintain multigenerational households as they have been sucked into a cash economy and family members have migrated to cities and abroad in pursuit of cash. She tells us that today Mexico imports 42% of its food and has a 55.1% poverty rate. She tells us that the top three causes of death and disability are now diet-related chronic diseases. She tells us that in 2007, 12.8 million Mexicans were residing in the USA. She proposes in the Introduction that we consider this as a kind of structural violence. “’Gringos’ clamor for handmade tortillas, while Mexicans have become the world’s top consumers of instant noodles” (p. 10).

Chapter Two provides an ethnographic look at the elevation of traditional Mexican food into the world of haute cuisine, blessed by René Redzepi, the celebrated Danish chef. Gálvez examines “the role of narrative capital in telling certain kinds of stories that simultaneously romanticize specific elements of cuisine (like hand-ground landrace corn), while cleaving them from the historical conditions of their production and the people responsible for their development and custodianship over millennia” (p.30). Mexican cuisine was inducted into UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Gálvez addresses the timelessness of the UNESCO description, while providing examples of changes in Mexican cuisine since the Spanish conquest, and notably since NAFTA. Some farmers of landrace corn fed it to their animals because the price and demand was so low, but today, top chefs are paying premium prices for ancestral corn that they serve along with huitlacoche, insect larvae, mezcal, and other traditional Mexican foods that have been newly discovered by elite chefs and diners. Gálvez stresses the importance of stories and who gets to tell them. She recounts stories that Mexican farmers tell about hybrid vs. criollo corn. Hybrid corn “requires more water and pesticides, costs more, and behaves like a spoiled baby” (p. 60) according to Nahuatl-speaking farmers of  Asunción Miahuatlán. Other farmers justify the higher cost of raising hybrid corn with market demand for the larger ears eaten as corn on the cob.

Chapter Three shifts from corn to goats, but repeats the messy pattern of some people deciding to continue raising criollo goats which taste better while others follow the advice of government agronomists to invest in fancy goats. Gálvez rehearses for us the history of Mexico’s development policy and the constant desire to make agricultural production more “efficient.” She argues that small-scale agriculture is compatible with other subsistence and economic activities and it ensures biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Central to her argument is the contrast between a market-driven food security model promoted by free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and a food sovereignty model that calls for democratic control of the food system. As marginalized rural residents are blamed for Mexico’s “inefficiency,” their displacement has led to increased consumption of US products and labor migration to the US, both actions subsidizing the US economy.

Chapter Four begins with a description of Doña Yolanda’s small store, filled with candy and other processed foods. Stores like this are typical in many poor countries, so I was glad that Gálvez spent some time explaining the attraction of getting into this type of business and the competition they face from larger chains, such as Oxxo and Walmart. She describes how processed food at first marked cosmopolitan modernity, but now is associated with lower status. Mexicans have embodied free trade and the nutrition transition in the form of widespread obesity, though Gálvez questions whether the cause is skyrocketing consumption of sugar or the myriad chemicals used in farming and food processing. She states that chemical exports from the US to Mexico increased 97% in the first decade after NAFTA was passed.

Chapter Five addresses strategies to combat obesity and diabetes in Mexico. Here, Gálvez points out that the solutions to this problem always seem to rest on the individual and don’t address changes in the larger food system. She, then describes three parts of the Mexican government’s response to diabetes and obesity: the soda tax and regulations on food marketing; the anti-poverty program, Prospera; and the Crusade against Hunger. She shows how the latter two strategies propel people towards a cash-based economy and away from traditional knowledge concerning healthy food. She ends the chapter with a discussion of women’s labor and how, even when working outside the home, women are expected to be responsible for the diets of their families. As their access to money increases and their time decreases, they are more likely to rely on prepared foods. The author points out that it is not fair that they and not the state should be held responsible for obesity.

Chapter Six looks at diabetes and asks about the role of migration in the rise of this disease. The focus is on the relationship between stress and diabetes on one hand and stress and migration on the other. She cites Mendenhall’s work on syndemic suffering which calls attention to the intersection of both diseases and epidemic social problems. Research is only beginning to explore the connections between diabetes and stressors such as separation from family members, discrimination, labor exploitation, poverty and lack of health insurance. The diets of migrants change, but also the migradollars they repatriate increase the consumption of larger quantities of processed foods back home.

Chapter Seven begins with watercress, a food that many Latin Americans have a nostalgic response to, but that never figures into stereotypes of Latin American cuisine. Gálvez asks “how many humble but clearly significant foods are forgotten in the transition to more urban lifestyles or with migration?” (p. 174). She also asks how much of our nostalgia for certain foods is nostalgia for the contexts in which they were produced and eaten and notes that migration intensifies nostalgia for specific places and tastes, especially when free circulation is prevented. Decontextualization enabled traditional foods to be appropriated and commodified like the expensive tamales offered by Williams -Sonoma or McDonald’s McBurrito. In response, food activists are promoting traditional foods and their health benefits as part of food sovereignty. At the same time that traditional Mexican cuisine is going global, global products like Coca-Cola have invaded indigenous culture and ritual and this, in turn, has become a useful marketing tool.

In the Conclusion, Gálvez tells the story of one Mexican migrant to New York who found his way back to the land with help from a non-profit called GrowNYC. The migrant in this story stands in contrast to the multitude of Mexican migrants who have become “’surplus bodies,’ and bodies as repositories of surpluses, storing the products of overproduction and uneven trade negotiations” (p. 192). Gálvez proposes that the rise of diet-related illness in Mexico is “a logical result of the prioritization of foreign direct investment, industrial agriculture, theories of comparative advantage, and a specific role of development that sees no role for small-scale agriculture” (pp. 192-193). At the end of the book, she takes us back to alternative movements such as GrowNYC that promote social justice, resistance and resilience  while promoting ways of eating that “build our connections to each other and to land and culture” (p. 199). Nevertheless, she warns that solutions require more than consumer activism at the local level.

Throughout the book, Gálvez often shifts her discourse from explaining to giving the reader insight into the conversations and observations that led her to make particular points. Sometimes these are descriptions of encounters; at other times, direct transcriptions from interviews in Spanish. These are not translated in the text, but merely summarized and commented on. (Interested readers can find the exact translations in the endnotes.) It’s a refreshing style that maintains reader interest in the topics at hand while also opening the research curtain. Gálvez successfully presents the complexity of a food system gone awry and the important role played by NAFTA. I highly recommend it as a text in courses dealing with food systems, social justice, migration and public policy, as well as courses on Latin America.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cuisine, diabetes, economics, globalization, Mexico, neo-liberal public policy

The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and even whole house water filters. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Flint, food security, neo-liberal public policy, water