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How NAFTA destroyed the way we eat

Sopes with chorizo, chicken and a combination of

Sopes with chorizo, chicken and a combination of shredded beef, pork and sausage. Credit: Newsday / Joan Reminick

A few weeks ago, my aunt came to visit from Mexico for the first time in nearly 20 years. During her month-long stay, my family and I were treated to hand-made sopes -- a deep-dish tortilla topped with beans, meat, cheese and a meticulously minced raw salsa -- and pozole, a chicken, corn and hominy soup so time-consuming to prepare that my mom usually only makes it at New Year’s.

These kinds of from-scratch, labor-intensive meals are what Alyshia Galvez, a professor in the Department of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College/City University of New York, calls milpa-based cuisine, a term derived from the Spanish words for “maize field.”

In her new book, “Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico,” Galvez describes this style of cooking as found across a wide variety of regions in Mexico. They share a core set of ingredients like ground corn and the kinds of fresh vegetables and plants -- squash, beans, tomatoes, chiles -- that can be grown in a small field close to home to create meals that are made fresh immediately prior to their consumption.

This way of eating is nearly the opposite of what is generally considered “Mexican food” in the United States (especially if you stop to consider the brain-numbing reality that a Harris poll recently found: Taco Bell is Americans’ favorite Mexican restaurant). And it is in danger of becoming extinct.

That’s because NAFTA, and other trade policies, have incentivized people all over the world to migrate for work or take jobs in factories for low wages -- breaking up their way of life. This has made an attractive alternative of the super-cheap, ultra-processed foodstuffs that industrialized food manufacturers are increasingly finding it harder to sell to nutrition-conscious Americans.

“Along with their counterparts in other countries, rural and low-income Mexicans have provided a market for producers of industrial foods to offset declining sales in the United States,” Galvez writes. “ economic trends and policy decisions that have taken ancestral ways of eating out of the reach of the average Mexican citizen making traditional foods available as a high-value, high-status commodity to be ‘elevated’ and reinterpreted by global elite chefs.”

In a recent interview, Galvez told me that she became interested in connecting the dots between trade, food policy, migration and health in both the U.S. and Mexico when she started seeing her loved ones in Mexico becoming ill with the same kind of weight-related diseases -- obesity, diabetes and heart disease -- that afflict so many Americans, even though those relatives never migrated.

“I wasn’t really aware of those interconnections at all; trade wasn’t something I was particularly interested in,” Galvez said, “But I pulled on one string and all these other strings unraveled. The story of how NAFTA has altered the food system in the whole continent, and the health effects, affects every single one of us.”

Galvez touches on such issues as the rise of the avocado, how soda taxes get watered down by corporate interests and the role of “personal responsibility” in how populations eat (spoiler: make fresh fruits and vegetables more expensive and harder to find and poor people will turn to cheap, processed foods). She ultimately wants people to understand the unintended consequences of wide-ranging trade deals, and she does it by appealing to our self-interest.

“Sure, we get access to fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico year-round, but the takeaway problem is fundamentally about democracy,” Galvez said. “When these deals are negotiated behind closed doors by the executive branch, with Congress then voting up or down, we all lose, because these policies affect 99 percent of the population in three countries, yet we are not at the bargaining table. Very specific interest groups and corporations are at the table, and they get their well-defined wish lists met. If we care about democracy, then we have to care about representation and about who is being taken into consideration when these deals are made.”

Still, as President Trump renegotiated the trade pact of what will reportedly be called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Galvez said, “I’m in the uncomfortable position of hoping doesn’t recklessly trash NAFTA. There would be a lot of pain for everyone involved. We can’t afford the crumbling of our current food system. ... We just don’t realize how intertwined and interdependent we are. [Drastic changes] could cause an incredible logjam on products we depend on daily. We’d see unbelievably high costs, farmers would see their crops rotting on the vine and hunger on a massive scale.”

The evolution of how we eat is a fact of life. But negotiating away the gastronomical cultural heritage of whole countries -- including ours -- in the name of enhanced trade, is not a deal many would make if they were aware of what was at stake.