Diabetes: The Leading Cause of Death in Mexico

EDITOR NOTE: Did NAFTA contribute to the diabetes issue in Mexico? It certainly isn't difficult to find Mars, Pepsi or Coca-Cola products on every checkout counter, from drug stores to corner-store Oxxos. Even pharmacies (which should be looking out for our health) heavily subsidize their profits with junk food. At this point, eating junk is almost unavoidable. Thanks NAFTA.

Mexican cuisine is increasingly recognized for being some of the world’s best and most complex food. In 2019 Taste Atlas ranked spit-roasted pork tacos al pastor as the world’s top dish.

Mexican organic coffee, mezcal, avocados, beer and tacos are all making their way onto the menus in upscale restaurants in the US, Canada, and elsewhere around the globe.

Unfortunately, as Mexico’s gastronomy is being celebrated abroad it is becoming increasingly out of reach for many Mexicans. In Mexico City today residents and visitors can sample gourmet interpretations of regional dishes at upscale restaurants such as Azul Condesa and Pujol, or try a variety of mouth-watering tacos from different parts of the country at street stalls and carts.

In many parts of the country, however, as traditional modes of agricultural production and local consumption patterns change, residents are increasingly likely to subsist on a diet that is heavy in sugary soda, processed snacks, and greasy, fried meats.

Over the last thirty years Mexico’s agricultural economy has shifted towards exporting vegetables and other farm products but increasingly relies on imported corn and heavily processed food products.

In her excellent book “Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, And The Destruction Of Mexico” Alyshia Galvez, a Latin American Studies professor at the City University of New York, explains “Corn, the most basic element of Mexican food, exemplify larger trends in the economy, as small-scale farmers find they can no longer afford to grow it, and as it is becoming more common for it to be eaten and drunk in highly processed forms in chips, sweets, and soda, rather than in tortillas, tamales, and atole.”

During the NAFTA era McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Walmart, and Mars have made major in-roads into Mexico. Today diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico and it affects 15.8% of the country’s adults, a higher rate of incidence than in the US (10.8%) or Canada (7%).

Mexico is now the world’s top consumer of soda and residents drinks an average of 176 liters of soda per year. This outcome is not an accident. Multinational food companies have benefited from coordinated public policy to create nation-wide distribution networks. At the same time local production and consumption of vegetables has declined precipitously. To discuss Mexico’s current economic, gastronomic, and public health dynamics I reached out to Galvez.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery: One of the most interesting ideas you present in your book is the concept that during the nominally "neoliberal" NAFTA era in Mexico multinational companies such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and McDonalds collaborated with government officials to establish massive networks to distribute processed foods to the most remote regions of the country.

At the same time the onus for health and nutrition has been shifted to the individual with obesity and diabetes being characterized as individual failures to embrace healthy patterns of diet and exercise. How did you see this dynamic playing out at the local level during your research?

Alyshia Gálvez: In the last two and a half decades the Mexican countryside has been visibly transformed: more paved roads, improved infrastructure, and a blurring of the lines between “urban” and “rural” as more previously isolated and small communities have come to bear the signs of globalization and development.

Nothing is a more visible sign of this than the ubiquitous presence of food and beverage distribution: Coca Cola trucks, Oxxo stores, Walmart, and the branding of every little corner store with the colors of Pepsi, Coke or Bimbo.

At one point, Oxxo was opening three stores per day in Mexico, and Walmart is the nation’s largest retailer, claiming the lion’s share of retail food sales. What is less visible is what is no longer there: the previously robust landscape of small family farms.

Decimated by the withdrawal of the price supports, subsidies and food distribution systems that NAFTA obliged Mexico to end, many former farmers have migrated to cities or to the US. There has been a health consequence to the shifts that free trade and neoliberal development policies have wrought on the Mexican countryside: a rising epidemic of non-communicable chronic disease, especially diabetes.

But perhaps because diabetes is a slow-moving epidemic that takes its toll little by little, over time, the relationship between economic policies and public health is sometimes obscured. Blaming the victim, by emphasizing the role of personal behavior in the onset and treatment of diabetes, is easier perhaps than addressing the structural factors that oriented the entire food system away from traditional foods.

Read the rest on: Forbes

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