3:37am

Thu January 9, 2014
The Salt

The Fruits Of Free Trade: How NAFTA Revamped The American Diet

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 10:21 am

Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you'll see things you'd never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter.

Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it's the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month.

In the years since, NAFTA radically changed the way we get our fruits and vegetables. For starters, the volume of produce from Mexico to the U.S. has tripled since 1994.

There are several reasons why, explains Jaime Chamberlain, president of J-C Distributing Inc., a large produce importer and distributorship in Nogales, Ariz.

First, NAFTA eliminated tariffs. Cantaloupes, for instance, used to have a 35 percent tax on them when they crossed the border. No tariffs meant lower prices.

Second, NAFTA encouraged investment. So companies like Chamberlain's have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Mexican farms. That has helped create year-round supply and demand for U.S. and Canadian customers.

"Twenty years ago, in tomato items alone, you did not have 365-day distribution from Mexico to the United States," he says. "And now ... every single day of the year, you will find Mexican tomatoes in the U.S. market."

Availability is what seems to matter to shoppers like Garrett Larriba, whom I encountered at a Tucson, Ariz., Safeway.

I asked him if he knows where his produce comes from.

"No, no I don't," he said.

Does he care? "No, not really."

But a number of other people I spoke with at the same Tucson Safeway do care — including Larribas' companion, Christine Peterson.

"I try to eat local as frequently as possible," she told me, "and I do care where it comes from."

Peterson said she wants to support local farmers — and justified or not, she worries about food safety.

Of course, for consumers fully committed to buying local, that also means buying only what's in season.

"I don't have much fruit in the winter — bluntly," says Joan Gussow, a nutritionist and author who has been called the "matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement."

Gussow eats mostly dried fruit in winter and whatever vegetables grow near her home in New York's Hudson Valley. By selling fruits and vegetables bred to travel long distances, she says, NAFTA has helped train people to value convenience over flavor.

"It's meant that people don't know anything about where their food comes from, and they don't know anything about seasons," Gussow says. "And so they really have settled — as they have with tomatoes — for something that is really like a giant orange golf ball."

Jaime Chamberlain disagrees. He says the produce industry has made great strides in packaging and shipping more flavorful fruits and vegetables from Mexico. Don't knock availability — celebrate it, he says.

"We should be teaching our children that nowadays, you're able to enjoy strawberries even though you're in the dead of winter in January," he says.

Enjoy it or not, that's what Americans got from NAFTA. As for getting your children to eat more fruits and vegetables — that's another issue altogether.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you'll see things you wouldn't have seen years ago: fresh raspberries or green beans in January. Much of that produce comes from Mexico, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was 20 years ago this month that NAFTA went into effect. NPR's Ted Robbins begins his story of how NAFTA changed the way we get our fruits and vegetables among the produce.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Jaime Chamberlain opens up a box of tomatoes for me.

JAIME CHAMBERLAIN: Nice Romas coming in from Culiacan, Sinaloa.

ROBBINS: Nearby in the J-C produce warehouse in Nogales, Arizona, zucchini, yellow squash and green beans - all ready to ship to grocery stores all over the U.S. Since 1994, the volume of produce from Mexico to the U.S. has tripled. Upstairs in his office, Chamberlain tells me why. First, NAFTA eliminated tariffs.

Cantaloupes, for instance, used to have a 35 percent tax on them when they crossed the border. No tariffs meant lower prices. Second, NAFTA encouraged investment. Companies like Jaime Chamberlain's have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Mexican farms. That has helped create year-round supply and demand for U.S. and Canadian customers.

CHAMBERLAIN: Twenty years ago, just in tomato items alone, you did not have 365 days distribution from Mexico to the United States, and now you have every single day of the year you will find Mexican tomatoes in the U.S. market.

ROBBINS: Availability is what seems to matter to shoppers like Garrett Larriba. Do you know where your produce comes from?

GARRETT LARRIBA: No. No, I don't.

ROBBINS: Do you care?

LARRIBA: Not really.

ROBBINS: But a number of people I spoke with at this Tucson Safeway do care. Like Larribas's companion, Christine Peterson.

CHRISTINE PETERSON: I try to eat local as frequently as possible and I do care where it comes from.

ROBBINS: Peterson says she wants to support local farmers, and justified or not she worries about food safety. There is another way to eat. By local season.

JOAN GUSSOW: I don't have much fruit in the winter, bluntly.

ROBBINS: That's Joan Gussow's answer. She eats mostly dried fruit in winter and whatever vegetables grow near her home in New York's Hudson Valley. Gussow is a food policy expert who's been called one of the founders of the eat-local food movement. By selling fruits and vegetables bred to travel long distances, Gussow thinks NAFTA has helped train people to value convenience over flavor.

GUSSOW: It's meant that people don't know anything about where their food comes from and they don't know anything about seasons, and so they really have settled, as they have with tomatoes, for something that is really like a giant orange golf ball and call it a tomato.

CHAMBERLAIN: I don't agree with that. I believe that produce and fresh fruits and vegetables should be available 365 days a year from as far, you know, west as San Diego to as northeast as Halifax.

ROBBINS: Jaime Chamberlain says the produce industry has made great strides in packaging and shipping more flavorful fruits and vegetables from Mexico. And Chamberlain says don't knock it availability, celebrate it.

CHAMBERLAIN: We should be teaching our children that nowadays you're able to enjoy strawberries even though you're in the dead of winter in January.

ROBBINS: Enjoy it or not, that's what we got from NAFTA. Now, getting your children to eat more fruits and vegetables is another issue altogether. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.