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How America Is Making the Whole World Fat and Unhealthy

We've exported the worst of our food to developing countries and we've imported the best of their food -- making poorer countries even more worse off.

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What happened? Peter Brown, an activist with the non-profit Schools for Chiapas, began working with indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, shortly after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. By 2010, he began observing diabetes in the population he worked with, a problem the communities had never had before. De Schutter connects the dots, noting the massive investment in the Mexican food processing industry by U.S. companies following NAFTA, and the subsequent rise in the sales of processed foods at a rate of five to 10 percent annually between 1995 and 2003. It's not unheard of for parents to feed young children soda from a baby bottle in Mexico these days.

De Schutter provides a concise history lesson, describing how developing countries increased the amount of calories consumed from meat (119 percent), sugar (127 percent) and vegetable oils (199 percent) between 1963 and 2003 while industrialized nations also increased vegetable oil consumption by 105 percent at the same time. "Because the prices of basic crops went through such a significant decline, the agrifood industry responded by 'adding value' by heavily processing foods, leading to diets richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salt, and sugars. This, combined with urbanization and higher employment rates for women, precipitated the rapid expansion for processed foods, both domestically and through exports dumped on foreign markets," writes De Schutter.

Today, in industrialized nations, healthy foods often cost more than junk foods. "This should not be allowed to stand," writes De Schutter. "Any society where a healthy diet is more expensive than an unhealthy diet is a society that must mend its price system. This is even more imperative where the poorest are too poor to feed themselves in a manner not detrimental to their health."

Developing nations face an additional challenge, as they often "export high-quality foods, tropical fruits and vegetables in particular, to rich countries, while importing refined grains." The recent boom in quinoa is one such example. Most quinoa comes from the Bolivian Andes where indigenous peasants traditionally grew quinoa and raised llamas and alpaca for meat and fiber, respectively. With the demand in Europe and the United States for healthy, gluten-free grains, quinoa -- which is very high in protein -- became popular. Today, Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa, and the quinoa-growing region of the country is also the most malnourished as those who grow quinoa for export now purchase refined grains to eat. The region also faces decreased soil fertility, as farmers mine their soil to grow quinoa year after year instead of rotating crops with llama pasture to restore fertility.

Ironically, as wealthy, educated Americans strive to achieve diets rich in locally-grown, fresh, organic whole foods, many in the Global South strive to afford the very processed foods that Slow Food enthusiasts turn their noses up at. When a group of Americans complained to their Bolivian tour guide about the breakfast of white bread, Nescafe, and cake at a four star hotel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, their guide exclaimed, "That's posh bread!" The hotel was serving foods locally perceived as upper class. Healthful Bolivian foods such as quinoa are seen by many as lower class "Indian food."

Examples like this can be found around the world. Nairobi's upscale suburb of Karen now boasts a brand new KFC, located in a ritzy mall that also has an Apple store. One piece of chicken costs a little more than US$2, more than the cost of an entire meal of kale, mung beans, and corn porridge elsewhere in the city. And while a meal at KFC might be out of reach for many, other junk foods are all too accessible and affordable.

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