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A Nasty, Nafta-Related Surprise: Mexico’s Soaring Obesity

December 10, 2017

But few critics predicted it would transform the Mexican diet and food ecosystem to increasingly mirror those of the United States. In 1980, 7 percent of Mexicans were obese, a figure that tripled to 20.3 percent by 2016, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Diabetes is now Mexico’s top killer, claiming 80,000 lives a year, the World Health Organization has reported.

For many Mexicans, Nafta promised to make real “the fever dreams of joining the modern economy,” said Timothy A. Wise, a trade expert at the Small Planet Institute and Tufts University. “All former rural workers would be in new jobs in the burgeoning manufacturing industries of the post-Nafta world. That just hasn’t happened.”

“The only way that Mexico became a ‘first world’ country was in terms of diet.”

The phenomenon is not limited to Mexico. Research shows free trade is among the key factors that have accelerated the spread of low-nutrient, highly processed foods from the west, “driving the obesity epidemic in China, India, and other developing countries worldwide,” according to the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard.

But Jaime Zabludovsky Kuper, Mexico’s deputy chief negotiator on the pact, said Nafta didn’t cause obesity. Instead, he said, it lowered food prices and reduced malnutrition. In 2012, 1.6 percent of Mexican children suffered from severe malnutrition, a sharp drop from 6.2 percent in 1988, according to government data.

Mr. Kuper said that Mexicans had long been enticed by American food, and that high tariffs used to make it expensive, not unavailable. The economy is now more stable, he said, and Mexicans are living longer — which is partly why more people are dying from noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. “It’s a symptom of relative prosperity,” he said.

    The broader pros and cons of Nafta have come under increasing scrutiny given President Trump’s threats to dismantle it. Among its chief champions are American farm and food-retailing interests whose fortunes have benefited tremendously from the open market. Mexican exports to the United States have surged, and a more stable economic structure has evolved in Mexico. The country’s unemployment rate has stayed mostly constant, but average wages have fallen to $15,311 in 2016 from $16,008 in 1994, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    Critics of Nafta acknowledge the complex causes of obesity, but argue free trade intensified the problem by opening Mexico’s largely isolated economy.

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    In addition to dramatically lowering cross-border tariffs, Nafta let billions of dollars in direct foreign investment into Mexico, fueled the growth of American fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and opened the floodgates to cheap corn, meat, high-fructose corn syrup and processed foods.

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