Brunch With­out Bor­ders

How nafta changed the way we eat

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Corey Mintz

How NAFTA changed the way we eat

You can find it in North Van­cou­ver, topped with slices of wa­ter­melon radish and a tan­gle of pea shoots. Or in Fort Mc­mur­ray, Al­berta, served with hemp seeds and toma­toes. In Ot­tawa, it comes lay­ered with chick­peas, lime, and harissa. Av­o­cado toast has be­come a cliché—a kind of short­hand used to slan­der young peo­ple for their food-pur­chas­ing choices. But it is also a gen­uine re­flec­tion of the way that eat­ing in Canada has changed. A gen­er­a­tion ago, we did not spread av­o­cado on our morn­ing toast. That we do now is thanks, in no small mea­sure, to free trade: it’s un­likely that Cana­di­ans would be con­sum­ing this now ubiq­ui­tous and In­sta­grammable break­fast treat were it not for the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, which, in 1994, struck down var­i­ous eco­nomic bar­ri­ers be­tween Canada, the United States, and Mex­ico and gave us a plen­ti­ful, year-round sup­ply of av­o­ca­dos. In 1988, Canada im­ported 6.9 mil­lion kilo­grams of the fruit, al­most all of it from the United States. Back then, you couldn’t just write av­o­ca­dos on your gro­cery list and ex­pect to find them in a Cana­dian su­per­mar­ket. They might have shown up wrapped in nori in a “sushi” Cal­i­for­nia roll or sliced over bowls of brown rice in veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants, but they were un­com­mon. As NA FTA elim­i­nated tar­iffs and other lim­its on trade and in­vest­ment — in­clud­ing Amer­ica’s ban on Mex­i­can av­o­ca­dos—im­ports grew more than ten­fold. By 2017, Canada was im­port­ing al­most 80 mil­lion kilo­grams of av­o­ca­dos a year, nearly ev­ery one of them from Mex­ico. It is dan­ger­ous to con­fuse cor­re­la­tion with cau­sa­tion. In the last three decades, a suite of other fac­tors has al­tered food pro­duc­tion: in­te­grated sup­ply chains, chang­ing con­sumer tastes, and the rise of green­house agri­cul­ture. But none are as sweep­ing as NA FTA. Av­o­cado toast may have been pop­u­lar­ized by mil­len­ni­als, but it’s free trade that let it be­come a sen­sa­tion. Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to pur­sue trade wars and call the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of NA FTA into ques­tion. And be­cause it’s been so long since free trade was in­tro­duced, it can be easy to lose sight of the very ba­sic ways it has re­shaped our lives. In ad­di­tion to many other eco­nomic ef­fects, NA FTA has pro­foundly changed the way we eat and grow food.

Most of us don’t think twice about buy­ing toma­toes in Jan­uary or lemons in July. We have be­come so ac­cus­tomed to ev­ery fruit and veg­etable be­ing avail­able twelve months a year that we for­get it wasn’t al­ways this way. Be­fore NA FTA, Canada placed sea­sonal tar­iffs on cer­tain types of pro­duce, like let­tuce and cau­li­flower. US and Mex­i­can im­ports of crops like these were more ex­pen­sive dur­ing the sum­mer months, when they were avail­able from do­mes­tic grow­ers. With the pro­tec­tion­ist price bar­ri­ers down, one ma­jor in­cen­tive to buy lo­cal dis­ap­peared; grow­ers had to adapt to the chang­ing mar­ket­place, and many farms were con­sol­i­dated into large-scale op­er­a­tions. From 1994 to 2017, the mar­ket value of Cana­dian agri­cul­ture grew from $24 bil­lion to $59bil­lion. Since NA FTA was in­tro­duced, to­tal agri-food im­ports to Canada from the United States in­creased by $19.2bil­lion, or 264per­cent; from Mex­ico, the jump has been 1,105 per­cent. We can’t go head to head with Amer­i­can grow­ers for the same crops at the same time, says James Ver­cam­men, a pro­fes­sor of food-and-re­source eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia: our higher cost of labour and land, and their economies of scale, mean Cana­dian farm­ers can­not com­pete di­rectly. But elim­i­nat­ing tar­iffs cre­ates new op­por­tu­ni­ties for the agri­cul­tural sec­tor here, by al­low­ing us to ex­port pro­duce when our grow­ing

A gen­er­a­tion ago, we did not spread av­o­cado on our toast. That we do now is thanks largely to free trade.

sea­son yields har­vests that Amer­i­cans lack. Which is why, Ver­cam­men says, Bri­tish Columbia is “now grow­ing rasp­ber­ries and blue­ber­ries like crazy.” BC blue­ber­ries, it turns out, pro­vide a good frame­work for ex­plain­ing the com­plex­i­ties of im­port­ing and ex­port­ing pro­duce. Be­cause of the warm, sunny weather blue­ber­ries need to thrive, many re­gions have agrowing sea­son of only four to six weeks. But the cli­mate of BC al­lows for a longer sea­son: nearly three months, from early July to late Septem­ber. Cana­dian farm­ers didn’t use to ex­port the berries ex­ten­sively, but since trade bar­ri­ers have fallen, those blue­ber­ries have been able to travel all over North Amer­ica. Blue­berry pro­duc­tion in BC has grown from about 4.3 mil­lion kilo­grams in 1980 to 61 mil­lion kilo­grams in 2017. Here’s how this sea­sonal dance card of blue­ber­ries works. In win­ter, Canada starts get­ting blue­ber­ries from Peru, then Chile and Mex­ico; by late March or early April, the berries are com­ing in from Florida. As the sea­son there wraps up, blue­ber­ries start ripen­ing a bit far­ther north, and be­gin ar­riv­ing from Ge­or­gia, then Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon. Just as New Jer­sey is fin­ish­ing its sea­son in early July, Wash­ing­ton starts ship­ping — and so, now, can BC, which sends its berries to Cal­i­for­nia, Wash­ing­ton, and be­yond. That’s about as far north as blue­ber­ries grow; once the BC sea­son is done, the cy­cle leaps back down to the south­ern end of the map — the price jumps as well, to in­cor­po­rate freight costs — and starts all over again. As a con­sumer, it’s easy to over­look the mir­a­cle of trade co-op­er­a­tion nec­es­sary to make all this hap­pen. Con­sid­er­ing the ephemeral life­span of a fresh blue­berry, its ex­port is a mar­vel of or­ga­ni­za­tion: many eco­nomic and agri­cul­tural levers work­ing to­gether, rather than any one ju­ris­dic­tion try­ing to best its part­ners and “win” at trade, as Trump has fa­mously put it. “Peo­ple get pro­tec­tion­ist,” Ver­cam­men says. “And then you lose all the com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage. .. If you go to a NA FTA, where ev­ery­thing opens up, you’re go­ing to lose on some things... and hope­fully gain on some oth­ers.”

Those gains are not al­ways num­bers on a ledger: cul­ture pig­gy­backs on food trade as well. “When I came to Canada fif­teen years ago, even to find one can of pick­led jalapenos, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble,” says Elia Her­rera, chef and part­ner of Los Colib­ris, El Ca­bal­lito, and El Pa­tio restau­rants in Toronto. Her­rera used to have to buy Thai chilies to sub­sti­tute for Mex­i­can. But our tens of mil­lions of ki­los of im­ported av­o­ca­dos, con­sumed in the form of gua­camole, have been a gate­way for Mex­i­can cui­sine, which has taken off in Canada in the last decade. So have re­lated food prod­ucts, along with those av­o­ca­dos, which are fur­ther in­flu­enc­ing the way we eat. These days, Her­rera can im­port ev­ery­thing she needs from Mex­ico, from cac­tus to gua­jillo pep­pers, through a dis­trib­u­tor — some­thing that also wasn’t hap­pen­ing much be­fore NA FTA. “Now I can find lit­er­ally ev­ery­thing,” she says. “Even epa­zote, the wild herb. And, be­cause of that, I’m able to pro­vide very au­then­tic Mex­i­can cui­sine.” At Her­rera’s down­town-Toronto restau­rants, din­ers em­brace a diver­sity of mod­ern Mex­i­can cui­sine, from co­conut ce­viche to vuelve a la vida (cod and oc­to­pus cock­tail) to a ve­gan ver­sion of chiles en no­gada (stuffed pep­pers). This is not be­cause din­ers sud­denly de­vel­oped more so­phis­ti­cated tastes on their own: food trends and shifts in our eat­ing habits don’t burst forth out of nowhere. Twenty years ago, most Cana­di­ans didn’t know Mex­i­can food be­yond the Tex-mex we gob­bled along with other Amer­i­can cul­tural ex­ports—movie the­atres only started selling na­chos in the mid1990s. By the time Gwyneth Pal­trow en­dorses some­thing like av­o­cado toast, it’s evolved out of im­mi­gra­tion, agri­cul­tural, and trade poli­cies that have al­lowed chefs, and the in­gre­di­ents they love, to travel here.

COREY MINTZ has writ­ten for the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. He hosts Taste Buds, a pod­cast on the res­tau­rant in­dus­try.

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