The Fruits Of Free Trade: How NAFTA Revamped The American Diet : The Salt Signed 20 years ago this month, the landmark trade agreement radically altered the way we get our fruits and vegetables, encouraging year-round imports from Mexican farms. That's why it's now no big deal to find, say, raspberries in winter. But critics say it also has trained consumers to value convenience over flavor and has dulled knowledge of where food comes from.

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

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


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?


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.

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