Junk food kills: how the US is driving Mexico’s obesity and diabetes epidemic

By Ronnie Cummins and Griffin Klement

The US industrial food and farming system, dominated by fast food restaurants and processed, chemical-laden food, has precipitated a public health crisis both north and south of the border. With Mexico surpassing the US becoming the world’s fattest major country with a 32.8 percent adult obesity rate, according to the 2013 UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 70 percent of Mexicans are now considered overweight.

Since opening its doors to the first US fast food outlets in 1985, and implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, men in Mexico have gained an average of 15 pounds, and women an average of 19 pounds – far beyond the global average of 11 and 10 pounds over the same time period.

The combination of rising incomes, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and a flood of nutrient-poor, calorie-rich junk food from the US and Canada have pushed Mexican consumers to grow increasingly more obese, even as 50 percent of the population remains undernourished. A major health epidemic has taken root in Mexico that has both public health officials, consumers and parents concerned.

Mexicans are currently the world’s largest consumer of soft drinks, and account for a disproportionally large percentage of PepsiCo’s salty snacks business, “even with a doubling of [per capita consumption] in India and China,” according to PepsiCo’s CFO Hugh Johnston.

Even though the Mexican government’s spending on obesity has doubled from 2000 to 2008, diabetes currently affects one in six Mexicans, and kills approximately 70,000 per year.

Unlike the US however, the Mexican government is taking steps to change eating habits and generate tax revenue to address its obesity epidemic, recently passing a tax on both soda and junk food. Although a major win in the battle against obesity, a more sustainable change is necessary. Individuals must take personal responsibility and push to subsidize healthy organic food, not junk food, and promote sustainable food and farming practices, instead of subsidizing factory farms and chemical-intensive farming and food processing.

The junk food industry, now under attack by public health advocates and parents, finds itself in a similar position to where the tobacco industry was in the 1990s. After decades of lies and industry propaganda, the truth is finally coming out: junk food kills.

It is time to put a health warning on junk foods. It’s time to come to grips with the fact that we have allowed the junk food industry and the mass media to brainwash our youth and turn them into fast food addicts.

Studies have shown that school organic gardens, salad bars, and healthy lunches improve the health and academic performance of young people. Healthy eating habits and gardening skills nurtured and developed at an early age most often have a lifetime impact.

But of course we shouldn’t hold our breath for D.F.’s indentured politicians, who receive millions of dollars in campaign donations from Big Food Inc., to take additional action. Mexico is going to have to organize at the grassroots and local level and fight for public health, every step of the way.

Ronnie Cummins is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Griffin Klement is the North American Project Director for the OCA.


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