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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The Narrative of Lack

IMG_20160128_122541877I met a vegan couple, one of them from Mexico and the other from the US, at Te Quiero Verde, a vegetarian restaurant with this awesome mural. The American has been involved in animal rights and other activism since the 90s. Upon hearing about my project, he told me the following story about the effects of food aid in Haiti, where he worked for several years.

In the middle of the last century, Haiti produced and consumed its own rice. At some point, it even exported rice as aid. And then, following a natural disaster, it started being flooded with American rice, which killed off local rice production as Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. The American rice was milled white rice with little nutritional value, while Haitian rice was brown. The effect of killing off local production was therefore not only economic but directly nutritional as well. And thus, in supposedly addressing a problem another one was created, leaving Haitians more in need of measures to address malnutrition.

Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that the primary function of food aid is to fulfill the needs of donors – for example rice or milk producers – as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients – their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. It is portrayed as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.

Part of my work here is to look at the effects of food aid – in changing local markets, one also changes local food cultures. But analyzing the effects of aid also involves taking a critical eye to the narrative of lack. Is it real? Is it created? Is it being effectively addressed through aid? Is it the result of a larger systemic issue? If so, how does aid fit into the factors that created the need?

In the case of Haiti, aid wiped out an important source of nutrition and replaced it with empty calories. At some point in the cycle, the lost nutrients will need to be recuperated, perhaps with more aid. Where malnutrition exists it has a story and a cause, yet the marketing of aid is predicated on the implicit notion that malnutrition, hunger or poverty are default states.

When thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets. The idea that milk is an essential source of calcium is for many an almost unshakable truth – vegans who claim they get their calcium from almonds or broccoli are often met with doubtful looks. The same belief exists in Mexico. My conversations with women have yielded that they are exposed to the constant message – from medical professionals and commercials – that milk is a necessary source of calcium for them and their children.

Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium. In recent decades, traditional tortillerias have been mostly replaced by those selling Maseca tortillas, a brand owned by the large Mexican multinational Gruma. The move from an artesanal to an industrial process has resulted in a tortilla that is less calcium-rich. (Of course, people have also started consuming large amounts of other products churned out by Big Ag – coke, sabritas, etc – none of them nutritionally dense).

An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis here is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining.* While milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications of a narrative that positions milk as essential in a context where it is not traditionally consumed.

Imagine growing up in the West. You’ve rarely, if ever, come across yucca. As an adult, you suddenly start to see it everywhere. It is promoted to the middle-class through commercials and gracefully bestowed on the poor to ensure their health. Medical staff insist that mothers absolutely must feed their children yucca everyday. It would seem that until that moment in history, nothing your family grew or ate for generations, nothing you could find in a store growing up, was nourishment enough to ensure your children would be well-fed.

The promotion of milk is linked to another implicit narrative of lack. Many foods are said to be healthy – some have been even labeled “superfoods”. To position a food as necessary is something else altogether. As milk becomes increasingly central to public health discourse and social assistance programs around the world, it subtly delegitimizes traditional foods as possible sources of nutrition and health. The idea may be unarticulated but clear: before the Spanish brought their cows and culture, there was no way for children in Chiapas to have strong bones and develop healthily. Luckily for them, Nestlé, Lala and others continue their benevolent crusade.

*This was the recent topic of the Masters thesis of an acquaintance, I’ll devote another post to her work.

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