Can We Use Trade to Make Us Healthier? A Case Study From Mexico

U.S. exports obesity epidemic to Mexico was the conclusion of a recent Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) report. The study looks at the health consequences of the North American Free Trade agreement (NAFTA), a tri-lateral trade liberalization agreement between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. that came into effect in 1994. The researchers tracked the increases of U.S. exports into Mexico that followed NAFTA’s implementation. These included such items as soft drinks, snack foods, processed meats, and dairy, as well as raw inputs such as corn and soybeans that are used in the food processing industry. They then linked the rises to increased consumption of unhealthy foods and, thusly, to an incremental rise in the nation’s climbing obesity epidemic. Read More »

Breast Flattening—Barbaric Practice or a Sign of Something Deeper?

What would you do if you were the mother of a young girl born into a social setting where her gender automatically affects her chances of independence, riches and success? Most of us live in such societies as gender imbalances are institutionalised and pervasive the world over. Take the recently exposed gender gap in US election coverage published by that showed that even on important issues specifically facing women (such as reproductive health, birth control, women’s rights), the US media consulted the voices of actual women only 12-31% of the time. Read More »

A Cornavore’s Dilemma: Fighting Back C(orn)olonisation

Corn, corn, corn; mountains of corn as far as the eye can see. The images of the piling up Iowa harvests were one of a number of poignant visuals brought forward by the 2007 documentary King Corn (available on Netflix). The fact is, US production of corn has been growing rapidly since the 1970s and this year American farmers will plant an unprecedented harvest – 94 million acres of corn crop. This is the largest since 1944 and will take up roughly a third of the country’s harvested cropland.

This expanse has been largely driven by a change in direction of US farm policy four decades ago. Previously, agricultural production was tightly controlled to ensure overproduction did not drive the prices that farmers could get for their harvests too low and helped ensure that available agricultural land was not overworked and the environment was not unduly harmed. Read More »

Guest Roast: “Cancer and Condescension – The Case of Iraq’s Imposed Epidemic”

In December 2011, the world media focused its attention on the official end to the war in Iraq.

“Now, the last four bases are closing and their personnel are going home for Christmas 2011”, reported Al Jazeera.

Yet nine years after the beginning of what many see as an illegal war,  should we be feeling proud? Barack Obama’s noble statement about bringing troops home for Christmas was followed by:

“and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant.” (Al Jazeera, October 2011). Read More »

Coca-Cola, Obesity and Health in Guatemala: Why We Need a More Holistic Approach to Economic Development

There is more to life than money and by now it is well established that gross domestic product (GDP) is an inadequate measure of development. It allows for a crude assessment of economic activity within a country, but does not account for side effects known as externalities. These include environmental destruction and pollution, human lives lost in other countries from the development and sales of weapons technologies or negative effects on health of products and technologies that otherwise make money and therefore contribute to GDP. Furthermore, negative contributions of products developed by tobacco, weapons and other companies all count towards a positive GDP figure, further diminishing the emphasis we should place on it as an indicator of human progress. Read More »

Guest Roast: “Traditional Birth Assistants: Scapegoats or Potential Miracle Workers?”

Thomas Hart has been called ‘a fine example of a “citizen of the world”’* and an expert on traditional Maya practices having lived, worked and studied in Guatemala for the best part of two decades. Thomas is an anthropologist at heart and has consolidated his vast knowledge in his book “The Ancient Spirituality of the Modern Maya”. He works for a British NGO called Health, Poverty, Action and as a guest roaster shares with us some potential solutions to high maternal mortality rates in Guatemala**.

Comadronas, Guatemala’s Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs), are community midwives who are estimated to deliver up to 90% of births in rural Guatemala. Their relationship with the Ministry of Health has been a complicated one. In many communities, they have been derided by health professionals as uneducated (they sometimes are), illiterate (they sometimes are) and even superstitious (for practicing their own indigenous culture). As such they have served as convenient scapegoats for high maternal mortality rates, which are estimated to be twenty times higher in developing nations (1). Read More »

Stuffing and Starving: Are Cycles of Advertising Contributing to the Rise and Rise of Eating Disorders?

As the Victoria Beckhams of this world have replaced the Marilyn Monroes on the centerfolds of magazines and advertisements selling everything from perfume to real estate, wide social effects have taken place in rich nations. Although size zeros are no heroes, adolescent girls and grown women the world over have succumb to chasing the promised good feel of the thinness ideal. At the extreme, this chase can lead to conditions diagnosed by mental health professionals as binge eating and disordered eating (which includes self-starvation, bingeing, purging and exercising obsessively), leading to more widely known conditions of anorexia (self starvation) and bulimia (regular self-induced cycles of binge-eating and vomiting), found to affect up to 5.7% and 7.3% of women in Western nations respectively (1). Both are addictive psychological attempts to take back control over inputs into the body and sometimes other aspects of life. And both are on the rise in less wealthy countries too as they transition into Western lifestyles brought to them through cultural and corporate marketing transmissions associated with the age of globalisation (2). Read More »

“I eat, therefore I am”: Should Mental Health Enter the Food Policy Debate?

If the old parable is true and you are what you eat, does food affect who we are and what we think? I have previously written about the visible problems associated with poor diets in the world such as obesity, diabetes and food related cancers and the possible starting points for individual and public policy solutions. However, one notable health aspect generally missing from discourse on food policy is that of mental health problems associated with diet. These can include depression, with associated human cost of suicide, and health problems due to malnutrition associated with eating disorders. For example, according to the World Health Organisation “in low-income countries, depression represents almost as large a problem as does malaria (3.2% versus 4.0% of the total disease burden)” and every year 844,000 people commit suicide globally, a staggering 60% rise in the last 45 years. It is a pricey omission too since mental health issues are highly costly to: societies overall through their national health and medical systems; to the private sector through lost days of work; and to individuals through the suffering of depression or the silent, and often unreported and untreated, psychological and physical suffering associated with eating disorders. Mental health disorders cost the UK National Health Service, for instance, an estimated £77bn ($120bnUSD) annually and 77,000 people currently out of work due to mental health problems. Read More »

Lazy, Greedy Gluttons? Is obesity really such an individual problem?

It is no secret that the world is getting fatter. Lazy, greedy gluttons! If only you would just put down the burger, eat a banana and go for a jog. Right? Is it really that simple? I mean Weight Watchers tells us it’s all about point scoring and will power and the occasional leaflet from the NHS insists it’s a matter of your 5-a-day, so what is wrong with us? Why are there now 1.5 billion adults and 43 million children overweight or obese worldwide, rising by a staggering 214% since the 1950s? Yes, some of it lies in self-control. We are not stupid, we all know a stick of celery is healthier than a stick of Twix. But since this is such a widespread phenomenon, I don’t think it all lies in the choices we make. Is it perhaps also genetic? I find it hard to believe that the rate of evolution is so rapid that in a generation or two a third of Americans and Brits and 24% of all Mexicans have now developed the obesity gene, with around another third being at least overweight. So if it is not entirely us or our DNA, then what on earth is going on? Well, the fact that the rate of childhood obesity in Mexican kids is highly correlated with their proximity to the US border should serve a clue. Read More »

Urban Food Security in Developing Countries: Does it matter, what do we know and what should we do?

The challenges for poor residents in urban areas can be different to those living in rural areas when it comes to achieving basic food security in developing countries. Firstly, they are likely to have less access to – or likely to have access to less – land, thus self-reliance on own production is reduced. Urbanites’ diets also typically vary to those of ruralites. For example, in Guatemala rice is almost exclusively consumed in urban and peri-urban areas (1). Both these factors make urban dwellers more reliant on the purchase of foods, leading to higher vulnerability to fluctuations in domestic and international prices: for instance, almost all Guatemala’s rice is imported(1). In addition, food insecurity in urban areas is less visible than say sanitation problems, over-crowding and so on, and therefore is not on the policy priority agenda for city ministers (2).

Read More »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: