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Globally, there is an ongoing trend of a handful of big companies determining what food is grown, how it is grown, what is in it and who sells it. This model involves highly processed food adulterated with chemical inputs ending up in large near-monopoly supermarket chains or fast-food outlets that rely on industrial-scale farming.
While the brands lining the shelves of giant retail outlets seem vast, a handful of food companies own these brands which in turn rely on a relatively narrow range of produce for ingredients. At the same time, this illusion of choice often comes at the expense of food security in poorer countries that were compelled to restructure their agriculture to facilitate agro-exports courtesy of the World Bank, IMF, the WTO and global agribusiness interests.
In Mexico, transnational food retail and processing companies have taken over food distribution channels, replacing local foods with cheap processed items, often with the direct support of the government. Free trade and investment agreements have been critical to this process and the consequences for public health have been catastrophic.
Mexico’s National Institute for Public Health released the results of a national survey of food security and nutrition in 2012. Between 1988 and 2012, the proportion of overweight women between the ages of 20 and 49 increased from 25 to 35 per cent and the number of obese women in this age group increased from 9 to 37 per cent. Some 29 per cent of Mexican children between the ages of 5 and 11 were found to be overweight, as were 35 per cent of the youngsters between 11 and 19, while one in ten school age children experienced anaemia.
Former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, concludes that trade policies had favoured a greater reliance on heavily processed and refined foods with a long shelf life rather than on the consumption of fresh and more perishable foods, particularly fruit and vegetables. He added that the overweight and obesity emergency that Mexico faces could have been avoided.
In 2015, the non-profit organisation GRAIN reported that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to the direct investment in food processing and a change in Mexico’s retail structure (towards supermarkets and convenience stores) as well as the emergence of global agribusiness and transnational food companies in the country.