Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance
The Southwest Center’s Kellogg Program in Sustainable Food Systems
By: Gary Nabhan, Maribel Alvarez, Jeffrey Banister, and Regina Fitzsimmons
Welcome to the food system of the U.S.-Mexico border —the geopolitical boundary with the greatest economic disparity in the world. Stories written and spoken about this unnatural rift in the landscape are the stuff of myth, literary leaping or yarn spinning, depending on who tells the tale. The U.S./Mexico border is also, for many, una herida abierta—an open wound. It’s a third country altogether; a ghostly apparition; America’s neglected playground; el Norte—where the grass is always greener (if it is alive at all), and so on.
Researchers have gathered data to account for the economic and nutritional schism between the two countries. But the numbers are often imprecise, for Mexico and the United States rarely use the same measuring stick. According to one report, the per capita income of U.S. citizens ($45,989) is 5.6 times greater than that of Mexican citizens ($8,143), with most Americans having at least three times the buying power for food and drink than their neighbors on the other side of the line.
And yet, when we look more closely at the border region, we see that national averages hardly apply. In counties immediately adjacent to Mexico, poverty rates are twice as high as the rest of the U.S., while incomes in Mexico’s northern border states are 75 percent greater than in the rest of the Republic. Nevertheless, this still puts the average income in U.S. border counties far above the average income in the Mexican border states. Such stark discrepancies become personal when Mexicans witness the lavish consumption and unbelievable waste of food (40-50 percent) by their neighbors north of the border. On economic grounds alone, it should be no surprise that there are at least five million undocumented Mexican-born residents in the United States, many of whom work in the farm, ranch and food service sectors of the economy.
Meanwhile, 60 percent of all fresh winter-spring produce eaten in the U.S. now comes from Mexico. Wal-Mart is the largest single food retailer in Mexico, providing more jobs than any other transnational corporation. Viewed from just about every angle, Mexico is critical to the U.S. food system, while the U.S. food system is increasingly important to Mexico.