Why I Chose Mexico to Study Milk

It’s been two and a half years since I went to Mexico to start studying the globalization of milk consumption and this blog. My intention was to update it frequently but as soon as I returned to the US, I jumped into so much activity that writing this milk series took a back seat. Nonetheless, I did produce some posts here and on the Seed the Commons blog. I’ve also built awareness by speaking about the globalization of dairy at numerous venues, and I spearheaded the Seed the Commons campaign to #GetMilkOut of San Francisco school meals, which was launched on September 30, 2017. I am resuming the milk series with the hope of updating it more frequently, perhaps with shorter posts. For this one, I want to take a step back and speak about why I chose Mexico as my focal point.

I started this project to study a convergence of issues related to the globalization of dairy, including: the role of food aid in creating new markets for donors and integrating local food systems into a global capitalist market; the soft power of the West and the power of dominant groups to define what is normative; the social representations of non-European cultures, bodies, and ultimately of poverty, that justify a non-profit/development/humanitarian complex that furthers neocolonialism.

The first iteration of this project was a PhD I started in 2009, and I got the idea for it while I was working in the world of international human rights in 2007. I already knew that I wanted to explore the role played by the “non-profit industrial complex” and international institutions in maintaining a neocolonial world order, and I had an interest in food aid because I considered the usurpation of food systems central to this order. The idea to study milk distribution came about when I read an article about a joint program between Kraft and Save the Children: a school milk program in Mexico.

I read more about school milk programs, realizing how widespread they were becoming and how instrumental they were in changing food cultures around the world. The project crystallized and I decided to stick with Mexico for a number of reasons.

Poster Child for Neoliberalism and American Influence

The westernization of food cultures in the Global South, namely the increased consumption of animal products and processed foods, is largely the result of neoliberal policies and in this Mexico is a perfect case study. As the country that has ratified the largest number of free trade agreements, Mexico seemed like a poster child for the effects of free trade. The effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexican food systems are particularly well documented and are often spoken about in activist circles to illustrate the damage wrought by free trade agreements in the Global South.

That NAFTA involves the Unites States is also important, as Mexico’s close relationship with the United States is another area where it provides a magnified view of the direction the rest of the world is taking. “Westernization” often amounts to Americanization, and from food culture to economic policy, much of the world takes its lead from the US. NAFTA has been a boon for the American dairy industry, for which Mexico is the largest export market. Mexico not only has important economic and political ties with the US, but also a very close cultural proximity.

The history of milk distribution in Mexico is also linked to its relationships with other parts of the Global North. Dairy was introduced to Mexico by Spanish colonizers and its consumption started to rise significantly in first half of the 20th century. At this time, Nestlé opened the first dairy processing plant in Mexico and this Swiss company subsequently became involved in both the Mexican social sector and in the technical development of its livestock industry. Also during this time, the first milk distribution programs created new outlets for foreign dairy industries.

Layers of Cultural Imperialism

As Mexican diets and diseases become stereotypically American, the influence that the United States exerts onto its southern neighbor provides a great case study of the power of a dominant group to define dietary norms. However, dairy is not an altogether recent food in Mexico. The increase in dairy consumption over the course of centuries reveals other layers of cultural influence that are rooted in Mexico’s history of colonization. The story goes that the Spanish conquered Mexico and a culinary fusion of indigenous and Spanish foods gave rise to what we know today as Mexican food, but it would be more appropriate to view the adoption of Spanish foods as a gradual process. Some indigenous communities still eat predominantly indigenous foods and their adoption of Mexican (in the sense of modern-day Mestizo) food culture is a current, ongoing process.

Among my criteria for choosing a country were that milk would not be a traditional food and that a high percentage of the population would be lactose intolerant. Indigenous Mexicans fit the bill. And since the goal was to examine at the social dynamics by which a dominant group shapes the dietary norms of a subordinate group, the evolving and overlapping relationships of power between indigenous Mexicans and Europeans, Mexicans and Americans, and indigenous Mexicans with Mestizo culture make Mexico a very rich terrain.

The issue of lactose intolerance was important because it brings into salience the power dynamic between those receiving new foods and those promoting them (especially when these are authority figures such as doctors, nurses, aid workers, and teachers). While lactose intolerance is not as high in Mexico as in some other countries where milk consumption is being adopted as a new norm, it does play into the changes underway, as both indigenous and Mestizo populations produce strategies to deal with their impediment in consuming a food that they are told is necessary.

One-Eighty: from Plant-Based to Carnism Extraordinaire

Common representations of Mexican food are heavy with meat and cheese, but pre-Columbian Mexican food was almost entirely plant-based. Today, while consumption levels of meat and dairy remain lower in Mexico than in wealthy countries, they are quite elevated by Global South standards and are highly appreciated and culturally valued. As I set out to explore the social mechanisms of dietary change, I found Mexico fascinating because it presented the widest possible change.

There are many countries and populations where milk consumption has skyrocketed from next to nothing. However, in many of them animal domestication and/or the consumption of animal products had a longer history or were more culturally significant. The story of Mexico illustrates the true malleability of culture and even of social identity, and how these are shaped from above by those who dominate socially, politically and economically.

At the same time, the story of food in Mexico also shows us strategies of resistance. From Zapatistas replanting milpas on reclaimed lands to massive popular mobilizations against Monsanto and indigenous women selling donated milk in the market, Mexico is full of examples of people exerting the right to protect and determine their own food systems and culture. While milk is dumped onto communities around the world, the processes by which it is adopted or rejected can be quite complex. Mexico is the perfect place to unfold it all.

 

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Milking the Loss of Local Food

As Mexican food systems are incorporated into the global economy, rapid changes are underway in the dietary habits of the population. In The Narrative of Lack I spoke of dismantlement: indeed, local food systems can only be integrated into the global corporate food system through the dismantlement of their traditional structure and elements. For example, the move to a large-scale, centralized tortilla market is paired with the disappearance of biodiverse corn-based agricultural systems, small local retail outlets for traditional farmers, and the loss of their knowledge as they are forced to migrate towards other opportunities for subsistence.

Inside an OXXO, the largest convenience store chain in Mexico. OXXO is owned by Femsa, which also owns Coca-Cola Femsa.
Inside an OXXO, the largest convenience store chain in Mexico. OXXO is owned by Femsa, which also owns Coca-Cola Femsa.

Through a variety of mechanisms, globalization and corporatization of food systems have led to a drastic shift in dietary habits, characterized by an increased consumption of both highly processed foods and animal foods, and a decreased consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods. This leads to the “double burden” affecting an increasing number of countries in the Global South: malnutrition and obesity. Mexico is an unfortunate leader: its long-time epidemic of malnutrition is unabated while obesity and diabetes become ever more severe. It is in this context that milk is delivered to malnourished populations as a panacea. Around the world, milk is marketed both as a necessity and as the default children’s food – a symbol of basic needs met.

Poster of a campaign to build consumer awareness around the importance of milk.
Led by a partnership between a dairy rancher association and federal agencies, this campaign aims to build consumer awareness around the importance of milk for health.

Currently, the main nutritional selling point for milk is calcium and this marketing has been so successful that it has established the belief that other adequate sources of calcium do not exist. The irony is that in Mexico, other sources of calcium not only exist, they are front and center. Tortillas, the very staple of Mexican food, are traditionally made with corn that was processed in a way that renders them highly rich in calcium.[1] Yet, the disappearance of traditional tortillerias has led to a decrease in the nutritional quality of tortillas. Tortillas are also increasingly replaced by bread, which further limits calcium consumption.

While the narratives that accompany food aid often paint a lack that is either false or created, malnutrition is real. Zinc and iron deficiency are common amongst Mexican children[2], but social assistance is centered on milk, which has neither. This mismatch indicates at least two things: first, food distribution is more about benefiting donors than addressing the real needs of recipients; second, the symbolic appeal of milk is powerful indeed.

Widespread iron and zinc deficiency are due to politics of poverty and hunger and do not point to an inherent lack of these nutrients in traditional Mexican food systems. As with calcium, there are no a priori reasons Mexican children should be deficient in iron and zinc. On my trip to just one region of Chiapas last year, the existence of local, native sources of these nutrients became abundantly clear.

hierba mora
Hierba Mora, or Black Nightshade

Pozol is a hearty corn drink that indigenous Chiapanecans equate with strength, health and immunity. In the past it was consumed daily; now it is being replaced by milk and coke. Pumpkin seeds are native to Mexico and notoriously high in zinc. In Chiapas, a variety of indigenous and introduced greens have traditionally been harvested around milpas and in wild areas. People spoke to me in particular about hierba mora, a local green reputed to make one strong. Hierba mora is easy to prepare – like spinach or collard greens – and likely has a comparable nutritional profile.

These foods are disappearing from the diets of the population because of systemic changes to their food system. In San Cristobal, pumpkin seeds have become surprisingly expensive and beyond the means of many people, but one woman told me that growing up, tortillas with ground pumpkin seeds were a daily go-to snack. The nutritious greens that were once ubiquitous are being lost as many move to the city, unable to make a living as farmers. Those who continue to farm now use herbicides, killing off the greens that once grew spontaneously. Even in the countryside, people have access to less land, which limits both the amount and variety of food they can grow. The woman who spoke of pumpkin seed tortilla rolls told me that in her childhood, it was normal for every family to have an avocado tree, and now it’s a rarity. And though avocados abound in the farmers markets, they are not cheap. Fried foods and animal fats have largely replaced the healthy fats once easily available.

It is absolutely possible for these foods to be made accessible again with policies that help build local, biodiverse food systems. Indigenous and peasant movements are fighting for just that – their vision is based on recognition of the abundance to be found in their ecosystems and traditional knowledge. In contrast, the marketing of milk and many social assistance programs are based on the myth that they fill a void that exists by default.

The Encuesta Nacional de Nutrición (National Nutrition Survey) of 1999 found that half of Mexican children under two, and a third under five, were anemic. Interestingly, it also found that iron consumption levels were sufficient, but that children weren’t absorbing it properly. It is common knowledge that consuming vitamin C with plant-based sources of iron increases its bioavailability, and the report indeed points to low levels of vitamin C as a probable factor in the anemia rates.[3] In other words, eating more produce might have been a simple step towards decreasing anemia. To address the causes of malnutrition, we must turn our attention to a global economic system that mandates that produce be flown hundreds of miles to well-stocked grocery stores, while the children who live near where it is grown consume one of the world’s highest rates of soda.

Biodiversity and complex food cultures are not unique to Mexico; the traditional food systems of other countries also contain foods that are nutritious and calcium-rich. Yet in so many countries, school milk programs are implemented with the explicit purpose of creating a culture of milk consumption. This goal is always coupled with that of “teaching children healthy habits”. Around the world, we’re being lulled by a modern tune that says that this one singular food, traditionally consumed only by a minority of humans, is paramount for the development of human children.

Liconsa is being rapidly expanded in areas with the lowest Human Development Index, i.e. rural indigenous regions.
Liconsa is being rapidly expanded in areas with the lowest Human Development Index, i.e. rural indigenous regions.

Liconsa is a federal program that distributes milk to disadvantaged populations, such as low-income children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. It has existed since 1944 and its coverage is in continual expansion. Liconsa started to fortify its milk with iron in 2001[4], because why feed children foods that are naturally rich in iron and vitamin C when you can fortify nature’s perfect food and make it extra perfect? Studies that measure the effects of consuming fortified Liconsa milk find, unsurprisingly, that it is an effective way to redress anemia. However, childhood anemia was a noted problem in Mexico for decades[5] before Liconsa started fortifying its milk. The benefits of fortified foods for malnourished children are much touted today, but fortification is evidently a post-facto justification for the program. Milk distribution is not based on an objective assessment of needs but is instead legitimized through the representation of milk as the default nourishment for children.

When it comes to milk, a departure from Western norms is perceived as a lack instead of a simple difference. Most traditional food cultures do not include dairy, so naturally they are targeted for change. Children who don’t drink milk lack proper nourishment, or even just “food”, since milk is the generic children’s food. Conversely, any deficiency can be remedied with milk even when the milk needs to be supplemented so as to alter its nutritional makeup.

It is unsurprising that the lack of dairy in non-Western countries is seen as a growth opportunity for the dairy industry, but the support of governments and international institutions has been crucial to the industry’s success. A recurrent justification for investing in building local dairy markets is the discrepancy between consumption levels in the Global South and North, where the former are seen as having to catch up to the latter. Several East African countries reference a World Health Organization recommendation of a whopping 200 liters of milk per person per year[6], clearly looking to Western consumption levels as an ideal. For reference, per capita consumption in most Western European countries lies between 200 and 370 liters (data from 2007). Consumption levels in the Global South are markedly lower, with many countries in Asia and Africa consuming less than 40 liters per capita.[7]

Food aid does not address the structural problems that create hunger and malnutrition, but even within its limited framework, milk distribution shows that food aid is not always based on an objective assessment of recipients’ needs. Milk is not a good source of many nutrients and it is has been linked to myriad health problems. Worse, it is particularly detrimental to those who are lactose intolerant, which is the dominant trait in populations that don’t traditionally consume dairy. The people who are harmed the most by dairy are those who are seeing milk suddenly dumped into their communities as their governments urge them to drink up.[8]

We must of course address the root causes of hunger and build up local food systems, but some forms of food aid will still be necessary, for example in the short term and in emergency situations. And fundamentally, providing healthy meals to schoolchildren is a good idea. In these cases, the needs of recipients should be given priority and addressed objectively, away from industry input, cultural bias and emotional appeal. Currently, our representations of proper children’s food are shaped by Eurocentric norms and by the powerful association of milk with motherhood, childhood and nurturing. Through this biased lens, we allow for policies that harm those they purport to serve.

 

[1] In the process of nixtamalización, corn is soaked in a slaked lime solution, which can increase its calcium content by 750%, amongst other benefits.

[2] Morales-Ruán Mdel C, Villalpando S, García-Guerra A, Shamah-Levy T, Robledo-Pérez R, Avila-Arcos MA, Rivera JA. (2012, Mar-Apr) Iron, zinc, copper and magnesium nutritional status in Mexican children aged 1-11 years. Salud Publica Mex.

[3] Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (2004) Impacto de la leche fortificada Liconsa en el estado de nutrición de los niños beneficiarios del Programa de Abasto Social. Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rosado JL, Bourges H, SainT-Martin B, (1995) Deficiencias de vitaminas y minerales en México. Una revisión crítica del estado de la información: I. Deficiencia de minerales. Salud Publica Mex.

[6] See for example this press release by the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources of the Republic of Rwanda. MINAGRI launches milk consumption campaign, viewed on June 8, 2017, http://www.minagri.gov.rw/index.php?id=469&L=0&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=720&cHash=fe3fc8e2c1f1c49dae901d2252682d93

[7] ChartsBin statistics collector team 2011, Current Worldwide Total Milk Consumption per capita, ChartsBin.com, viewed May 9, 2017, http://chartsbin.com/view/1491

[8] To learn more, read my post about the global importance of the School Milk Industry.

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