Free trade’s unhealthy impact |

Free trade’s unhealthy impact

Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO — Speaking recently at an economic forum, Richard Trumka, the outspoken president of the AFL-CIO, asked this about free trade: “Is our trade policy working for America’s workers and for our nation as a whole? And the simple answer to that question right now is no, it isn’t.”

Trumka was addressing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration is attempting to fast-track through Congress. But our trade policy isn’t working for other nations, either.

Writing last week in The Guardian, Ramon Vera Herrera blamed free trade for the obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemic ravaging Mexico, Central and South America.

“Today, many countries in the global South are seeing an explosion of these afflictions — all because their governments welcomed in transnational food companies looking for new ‘growth markets’ for poor quality, heavily processed or just plain junk food,” wrote Vera Herrera.

“For big conglomerates to increase their profits, they need to develop and sell products aimed at hundreds of millions of the world’s poor. … To reach these potential consumers, large food corporations are infiltrating, inundating and taking over traditional food distribution channels around the world, and replacing local foods with junk, often with the direct support of local governments.”

Vera Herrera said that the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by President Clinton in 1993, destabilized Mexico’s food system ­— in terms of loss of economic stability, the undercutting of local food producers’ profits and, in many cases, the gobbling up of land by huge agricultural companies. These are major reasons for Latin Americans’ skyrocketing incidences of malnutrition, obesity and associated diseases, he says.

Recall this irony: In 2013, Mexico became the fattest nation on earth, taking the title from the United States, which had reigned supreme for years. Today, both countries are neck and neck for the dubious title.

Mexico’s obesity epidemic should be no surprise to anyone who has traveled south of the border in the past few years. Where once sidewalks were packed with vendors selling freshly cut fruit and vegetables, freshly squeezed juices and handmade comestibles, vendors are now likelier to be hawking bottled soft drinks, American candy bars and colorful packets of salty, fried chips.

When I visited family in Mexico in the 1980s, it was rare to see American stores, restaurants or products. My mom used to pack Snickers bars and Oreos to treat the family kids since those items were generally unavailable there.

But on my last trip to Mexico City, in 2007, I was shocked to see that my aunt’s formerly sleepy neighborhood had been transformed into a mini-American suburbia with a Burger King, two Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, several Wal-Marts teeming with Nabisco and Frito-Lay packaged goods and even a Hooters chicken wing restaurant.

So many Mexican citizens drink sugary sodas that the country’s status as the world’s top consumer of soft drinks led to a tax on the beverages in order to help curb the rapid expansion of obesity-related disease. Less publicized, however, are communities who rely on bottled soft drinks as their No. 1 alternative to water because their governments have not prioritized providing clean, running water for their citizens’ use.

This is not to say that malnutrition in Mexico and other Latin American nations can be blamed solely on free trade agreements. But many experts point to such deals as force multipliers in poor countries where an influx of cheap calories can quickly become a very expensive national health crisis.

Vera Herrera writes: “After visiting the country in 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food got it right when he said: ‘The overweight and obesity emergency that Mexico is facing could have been avoided, or largely mitigated, if the health concerns linked to shifting diets had been integrated into the design of the country’s trade policies.’”

It begs the question about how such dietary concerns are being addressed, if at all, in regard to the 12 countries involved in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Vietnam, for instance, is currently juggling both hunger and rising obesity, while Singapore is struggling to stem obesity and Malaysia is already Asia’s most obese country.

But with the text of the proposed trade agreement shrouded in secrecy, we may not find out whether nutrition was even a consideration until it’s much too late.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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