Image CreditIs NAFTA good for Americans?
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- Yes? But have you considered...
- No? But have you considered...
… that some people think NAFTA endangers our food supply?
Think about that nice Mexican produce you likely eat every season of the year — the shiny red peppers, the perfectly ripe avocados, the firm-but-juicy grapes. Ever wonder if there’s a downside to the post-NAFTA cornucopia?
The fact is that NAFTA has enabled the food on our table to come from farther away with fewer inspections than ever before. Farmers and food processors in Mexico do not have to follow U.S. food safety regulations, and Mexico’s food safety laws are so notoriously lax that food safety–conscious Mexican farmers often contract with private accreditation agencies to ensure that their products are safe. American produce is affected by NAFTA as well. Produce can be grown in the United States, driven to Mexico to be washed and packaged, and then shipped back to the United States to be sold. These longer and longer NAFTA-enabled food chains have made threats like the salmonella outbreak of the summer of 2008 much harder to both track and prevent.
Plus there’s the corn problem, which could be devastating. Since Mexico’s markets are now open to corn imported from other countries, Mexican agriculture is abandoning local varieties of corn for corn bred specifically to produce higher yields at harvest and for non-corn crops that fetch a higher value. Although in theory there’s nothing wrong with Mexico’s agricultural sector producing a more valuable crop — that was in part the point of NAFTA — the genetic diversity of Mexico’s native corn could save us from a food supply disaster of massive proportions.
Why? Lessons learned from Ireland’s Great Potato Famine in the late 1840s still stand now. Back then, Irish farmers relied on just a handful of varieties of high-yield potatoes. Then the potato blight arrived, and the subsequent crop loss and famine wiped out more than 1 million people — about a quarter of Ireland’s population. The only reason we can still grow potatoes today is because scientists traveled to the potato’s homeland, Peru, where a single village might cultivate several hundred varieties of potato. Eventually, scientists found varieties that were resistant to the blight.In the United States, thanks to industrialized agriculture, corn is the bedrock of virtually all that we eat. The genetic diversity of Mexico’s corn and the knowledge held by its farmers about how to grow that corn are key to food security in the United States and around the world. Bottom line: NAFTA’s agricultural policies expose us not only to food-borne pathogens, but risk a food crisis unlike anything the United States has ever seen.
… that NAFTA has kept food affordable for many low-income Americans?
When it comes to food prices, Americans are very fortunate. Even as the costs of health care and education have skyrocketed, the price of food has remained extremely low as a percentage of total income. Mexicans spend an average of 21.7 percent of their income on food, whereas Americans average less than 10 percent.
In general, NAFTA has helped make items that can be produced in other countries (like cars, clothing and computers) more affordable. Those items that can’t be relocated (like the aforementioned health care and education) have all risen dramatically in the last few years. Without trade agreements like NAFTA, it’s arguable that the cost of most goods also would have gone up dramatically.
Now that the biofuel push and the rising cost of fuel are jacking up the price of food, containing food costs in other ways, including not restricting the flow of cheap food from Mexico, is more important than ever. During the Great Depression, Americans spent more than a quarter of their income on food. Could that happen again in this country? It’s in our best interest not to be in a position to find out.
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