If you think trade deals are just about business, think again. They can also have a sweeping effect on how people eat. Take all those avocados, watermelon and cervezas from Mexico we now consume, and the meat and feed corn for livestock we send there in exchange.
The Obama administration hasn't shared much detail about the provisions in its controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 countries currently being negotiated. But if it's anything like prior free trade agreements, two things are likely, trade experts say.
First, it will have a potentially troubling effect on food and diet in member countries. Second, no one will talk about these dimensions of the deal before it's inked.
"Trade agreements don't deal at all with diet and health," Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, a national food and development nonprofit, tells The Salt. "What's a concern is opening up markets. They're not expanding businesses to improve diets, they're doing that to meet the bottom line."
One example of a trade deal that should have addressed nutrition and health, according to Holt-Gimenez: The North American Free Trade Agreement boosted American consumption of Mexican produce, but also paved the way for Walmart and American food manufacturers to export and sell a lot more less-healthful, processed food in Mexico.
Yet "no-one even bothered to ... develop legislation that would address the impoverishment of the Mexican diet as a result of eating all of the processed foods sold out of Walmart," says Holt-Gimenez.
U.S. officials say they have no plans to explore the health impacts of the TPP. "We do not see conclusive evidence that trade agreements themselves have a major impact on diet and health one way or the other," Cullen Schwarz, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, writes in an email. For that reason, he says, it has not been part of the discussion.
The new trade agreement will renegotiate provisions in existing agreements like NAFTA and create one set of rules between its 12 member countries, including the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Australia and Vietnam. The agreement's stated goal is to "negotiate comprehensive and preferential access" for American businesses to foreign markets — including all the food items America sells, from agricultural products like meat and grain to processed foods like Doritos, Coca-Cola and Cool Whip.
As Mark Bittman argued in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the agreements can also be seen as an attack on farmers and food safety. "The pact would threaten local food, diminish labeling laws, likely keep environmentally destructive industrial meat production high (despite the fact that as a nation we're eating less meat) and probably maintain high yields of commodity crops while causing price cuts."
Across the Pacific, health officials in Australia issued a report warning of the likely health effects of the TPP — including on diet, obesity and diabetes—on that country's citizens. Their biggest concern? That the controversial "Investor State Dispute Settlement" provision, which allows corporations to sue governments for limiting their ability to compete in a market, would undercut food labeling policies that promote healthier food choices, making it more difficult to battle rising obesity rates.
U.S. officials say these concerns are likely unfounded. While they acknowledge that they haven't studied the nutrition effects of trade agreements, they argue that eliminating barriers to American food exports benefits everyone.
"The Grown in America brand stands for quality ... and you're making this type of product more easily accessible for people," says Trevor Kincaid, a spokesperson for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which is in charge of negotiating the agreement. Pointing to the rising demand for meat in regions like southeast Asia with a burgeoning middle class, Kincaid adds, "American farmers can help fill the void." What's more, he said, trade agreements can lower the cost of food because "even just introducing competition just drives down costs."
As for concerns that ISDS could overturn public health laws, trade officials say that while the provision allows companies to file suit, it only offers financial compensation as a remedy. To actually change the law, companies have to win in local courts. (Think New York City's failed soda ban.) Officials also say that procurement policies, such as those promoting the purchase of local food, are typically exempt from ISDS.
And as to whether the U.S. bears responsibility for rising obesity rates in its trading partners, Kincaid demurs. "It may be one of those things where other things are happening," he says, pointing to the fact that obesity has risen across Latin America, not just in Mexico. And, he says, "What your family chooses to purchase and eat is your decision."
Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a New York Timesbestseller, and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. You can follow her on Twitter @tmmcmillan.