Trade liberalization linked to Central American obesity: Study


By Caroline Scott-Thomas
July 30, 2009

Trade liberalization in Central America has led to increased imports and availability of processed food, contributing to nutrition and obesity problems in the region, according to a new study.

Anne Marie Thow from the University of Sydney and Corinna Hawkes from the University of Sao Paulo, writing in the online journal Globalization and Health, examined data on imports, production and availability of foods, and compared it to various tariff levels in Central American countries.

"Central America has undergone extensive trade liberalization over the past two decades, and has recently signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States,” Thow said. “These policies have implications for health in the region. Specifically, they have been a factor in facilitating the ‘nutrition transition’, which is associated with rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

Processed cheese and fries

Average tariff levels in the region fell from 45 percent in 1985 to about six percent in 2000. In response, from the early 90s to the mid 00s, food imports more than doubled. During this time, the US became the leading exporter of processed cheese to the region, and imports increased 3215 percent.

In terms of processed fruits and vegetables, the authors wrote: “The most significant trend is the rise of imports of French fries,” with fries accounting for 23 percent of all imports of both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables in the region by the mid-00s.

"In Central America, liberalization appears to have directly influenced the availability and price of meat and processed foods, many of which are energy-dense and high in fats, sugars and salt,” Thow said.

Apart from increased imports of processed foods, the research said more imported grain has led to more domestic chicken production, and fewer barriers to investment have stimulated the growth of processed food markets.

Foreign investment

During the 1990s, for example, sales of processed food from US companies in Guatemala and Costa Rica surpassed even the rapid growth in US exports.

“Rising FDI [foreign direct investment] has been a major driver of changes in availability of highly processed foods and their ingredients,” the authors wrote. “…As availability of animal products and processed foods has increased, this has been reflected in nutrition surveys indicating rising consumption.”

The researchers suggest that strategies to improve nutrition in the region should take into account the ways in which food policy has changed food availability.

They conclude: “Finally, while there are arguments for and against trade liberalization, it is essential to consider differential effects on the poor. Factors affecting income and distribution are important in determining diet and health, and these factors are likely to be more significant for the poor in the process of uneven dietary development.”


Globalization and Health

2009, 5:5 doi:10.1186/1744-8603-5-5

"The implications of trade liberalization for diet and health: a case study from Central America"

Authors: Anne Marie Thow, Corinna Hawkes

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