Or maybe for breakfast, or for lunch. In any case, what’s available in your grocery store has been profoundly shaped by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). I know what we eat is largely shaped by public (health) policy, but I hadn’t thought about the relationship between NAFTA and my eating habits until I heard a story on NPR earlier this month.
My youth was pre-NAFTA – *cough* years pre-NAFTA – and I remember eating seasonal fruits and vegetables because that’s what was at the Farmer’s Market. Well, I remember my family eating seasonal foods. I was a terrible eater, finicky and obstinate. I grew up in Homestead, Florida, which was (and is) a farming town. We had more variety than most year-round because we were in the tropics. But there were still some things you couldn’t get in the winter, like starfruit. The tart flavor gives me a squinchy face, but I have fond memories of that particular fruit. And there were some crops you couldn’t get in summer, like snap beans.
But post-NAFTA, seasons are less important in influencing consumer options. That’s because fruits and vegetables are grown in Mexico and shipped here. The climate is different in Mexico relative to much of the United States and can grow a variety of crops at times farmers in the U.S. cannot. The example used in the NPR article was tomatoes, which grow year-round in Mexico, though not in the same region.
That’s the benefit of having almost an entire country with the farming potential of California, Florida, and the Midwest combined — not just because of availability of land, but also because of availability of labor. I’m oversimplifying the issue here, largely because the policy ramifications of NAFTA for U.S. farmers and Mexico farmers are too complex for a single post. Indeed, an entire blog could be devoted to NAFTA. I’m just trying to recognize the impact this policy has had on my diet.
So, how did it happen? How did NAFTA get into my refrigerator?
“First, NAFTA eliminated tariffs. Cantaloupes, for instance, used to have a 35 percent tax on them when they crossed the border. No tariffs meant lower prices.
Second, NAFTA encouraged investment. So companies…have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Mexican farms. That has helped create year-round supply and demand for U.S. and Canadian customers.” — The Fruits of Free Trade
Well, that makes sense.Tariffs are commonly used as an economic sanction in international affairs, and lifting them makes a huge difference for the exporting country. The second part is a little fascinating to me. Policy that encourages investment of U.S. dollars in a foreign country isn’t new; this practice has been called Dollar Diplomacy, or more officially (and boringly) Foreign Direct Investment. And we’ve encouraged investment in Mexico since President Taft (see Dollar Diplomacy link). But apparently with NAFTA, our Dollar Diplomacy has increased six-fold. From what I can gather, it’s the combination of free trade and foreign direct investment that has made the difference and really boosted U.S. dollars in Mexico.
While this is education and all, I’ve been wondering about another question. Do I want NAFTA in my refrigerator?
Many argue that fruits and vegetables that travel long distances are bred for that journey, which sacrifices taste and quality. Martha Stewart’s site has some really good information on how to choose your groceries. [I was surprised by this. I’m not sure why. I guess I just figured she was a corporate sell-out through and through.] As explained by this site, “Local has [an advantage] because fruits and vegetables that won’t be shipped far can be picked riper — and the riper they are, the better they taste.” I definitely want my food to taste good. I’m still finicky (and some might still say obstinate). So, this is one argument for being a locavore. This site also talks about the resources brought to bear to ship food, and delivers a reasonably balanced view (IMO).
“Buying locally means fewer “food miles,” the measure used to count how far your dinner traveled to get to your table. This can mean less energy used and less pollution. It’s worth noting that food miles don’t take into account the energy used to produce and harvest food (by operating farming machinery, for example), which can equal or exceed the energy needed to transport it. So miles don’t always tell the whole story.” — Fresh Thinking – How to Shop for Fruits & Vegetables
In the end, as with with all consumer choices, we have to decide what is the best fit for what we value. I value variety, so yay NAFTA! But I also value trust. And I feel like I can trust the food from a local farmer — someone I can see face-to-face if I want to — much more so than I trust imported foods. I’m not gonna lie to you though. If I’m craving a tomato during Winter Solstice, I’m probably going to the store to get one. But in my daily life, I want to be better about accessing local resources and supporting local farms.
What about you? Do you care where your food comes from?
+ Featured image, flag of NAFTA.