With this summer’s news from the United Nations that Mexico has surpassed the United States in adult obesity levels — one-third of Mexican adults are now considered extremely overweight — U.S. foreign policy has come into sharper, or perhaps softer, focus. Despite first lady Michelle Obama’s continued emphasis on good diet and exercise, the United States seems secretly intent on fattening everyone else on the planet. Apparently, America has adopted the old piece of ursine humor as grand strategy: “You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.”
At first blush, it might seem unfair to blame the United States for the stoutness south of its border. Surely, Mexicans (like Americans) are getting fatter because they are eating more, exercising less and spending too much time watching television. When one digs beneath the surface, however, it quickly becomes apparent that a complex web of American agricultural, trade, marketing and scientific practices together is helping drive a “globesity” epidemic. Many of these policies were designed to give U.S. firms a leg up in international markets, but the domestic economic benefits of this culinary oligarchy are increasingly being outweighed — literally and figuratively — by the toll on international health, particularly among the poor. The American taxpayer is directly underwriting a food-production system in which nutrition has become a distant afterthought.
Perhaps America is ultimately guilty of nothing worse than trying to remake the world in its own hefty image — a case of soft-power influence gone horribly literal. As the global costs of obesity continue to spiral, however, it is time to rethink the changes that the United States has brought to the table.
It is no accident that Mexico’s weight gain has coincided with increased soft-drink guzzling. The country’s national statistics agency estimates that Mexicans drink 43 gallons per capita annually, giving the country the world’s highest rate of soda consumption. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota-based think tank, has shown that the country’s sharp spike in obesity and soda consumption correlates with the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened Mexico to a flood of cheap junk food and soda pop: After the agreement took effect, there was a more than 1,200-percent increase in high-fructose corn syrup exports from the United States to Mexico between 1996 and 2012, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. (At one point, the Mexican government began taxing drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, but the fierce objections of U.S. corn refiners prompted Washington to complain to the World Trade Organization, and the tax was eventually struck down.)
In many ways, Mexico’s diet is being devastated by America’s perverse economic incentives. The United States has long imposed relatively high tariffs on sugar imports and granted large subsidies for domestic crops such as corn and soybeans. In the 1970s, however, when sugar tariffs rose even further and technological advances from Japan helped perfect high-fructose corn syrup production, agribusinesses’ use of the sweetener exploded. Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other U.S. soda and snack companies followed suit. U.S. per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38 pounds a year in 1999. As it did, American obesity spiked as well.