Study Links NAFTA to Obesity Epidemic in Mexico

As Mexico's food system becomes more Americanized, Mexico’s struggle with obesity and its related health problems become Americanized as well

A new study shows a link between the agribusiness-benefiting policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the obesity epidemic in Mexico.

The study, Exporting obesity: US farm and trade policy and the transformation of the Mexican consumer food environment, appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

"We've known for years that NAFTA hurt small-scale farmers in Mexico and contributed to job losses on border. The realization that NAFTA's rules on trade and investment may be partly responsible for creating an unhealthy 'food environment' in Mexico, mirroring that in the U.S., is new," says Karen Hansen-Kuhn, a study co-author and program director with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Dr. David Wallinga of IATP states, "As Mexico's food environment has come to resemble that of the U.S., with more ubiquitous sodas, processed meats and other processed snacks high in added fats and sweeteners, it's no wonder that Mexico's struggle with obesity and its related life-threatening problems--diabetes, stroke, heart disease--has become 'Americanized' as well."

The IATP notes that "before being ratified, bilateral or multilateral trade agreements typically have not been assessed for impacts on public health. This study suggests pre-ratification 'health impact assessments' would be smart public policy, as well as essential for appropriately engaging health communities in trade policy debates."

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From IATP's summary fact sheet on the article:

The U.S. has exported increasing amounts of corn, soybeans, sugar, snack foods and meat products to Mexico over the last two decades. These exports, facilitated by NAFTA, are one important way in which U.S. agriculture and trade policy is influencing the Mexican food system.

Coupled with rising imports, Mexico has received significant amounts of cross-border investment, also facilitated by NAFTA, from U.S. agribusinesses across the spectrum of Mexico's food supply chain. As a result, the Mexican food system looks increasingly like the industrialized food system of the United States--characterized by the overabundance of obesogenic foods.

Mexico has experienced significant changes in food consumption patterns over the last two decades, followed by a rising obesity epidemic in both children and adults. Mexicans, both rich and poor, and from diverse geographic regions, are consuming more added fats and sugars from snack foods, sodas, and processed dairy and meat products. Their health is suffering in the process.

While public health researchers and policymakers are actively debating the relationship between the food system and the U.S. obesity epidemic, the impact of similar forces on the population of U.S. neighbors and trade partners has been less investigated.

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