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Borders Out of Register: Edge Effects in the U.S.–Mexico Foodshed

This paper addresses how food systems and transboundary food supply chains are mediated and shaped by (cross-) cultural and geopolitical borders that function as selective filters. We focus on the ways in which the political boundary in a formerly cohesive foodshed generates “edge effects” that affect (1) food safety, and (2) food waste, particularly in desert communities adjacent to the U.S.–Mexico border. We hypothesize that as these various boundary lines get “out of register” with one another, their dissonance creates both unexpected impacts as well as opportunities for positive change. This initial analysis demonstrates how multiple (and often permeable) social, economic, and ecological edges intersect with food supply chain vulnerabilities and economic opportunities at the border. Drawing on examples from food safety and food waste surrounding the “Ambos Nogales” port of entry on the Arizona-Sonora border, we document the ways in which the border produces ecological and social edge effects that are dissonant with the official legal boundary. [food access disparities, food aid, food safety, food waste, transnational foodsheds, U.S.–Mexico border]


Food systems and transboundary food supply chains are mediated and shaped by borders that are culturally, politically, administratively, and architecturally constructed as selective filters. Transboundary food supply chains are inherently cross-cultural endeavors in which perceptions of the same problem or issue are often dissonant from the vantage point of one side of a political border or the other. In addition, the ports of entry between two nations are structured to facilitate the flows of certain goods, services, labor, and capital while restricting others. As a result, international boundaries such as that dividing the United States and Mexico are often experienced as “differentially permeable,” “selectively porous,” or “leaky.”

Although the U.S.–Mexico geopolitical border has long generated sociological, environmental, and economic impacts adjacent to the border, we hypothesize that these effects have intensified in decades following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in response to political economic shifts in international food production, trade rules, and regulation practices. These shifts have dramatically reconfigured how food is produced, distributed, accessed, and even wasted along the border.

In what follows, we offer as explanatory or heuristic tools the concepts of “edge effects” and “borders out of register” to elucidate the dynamics shaping two different components of transboundary food supply chains: food safety and food waste. We offer these “snapshots” not so much as “case studies” but as “teachable moments” in the history of U.S.–Mexico food supply chains that demonstrate how edge effects and culturally dissonant perceptions of the same transboundary food supply chain issue can generate both problems and novel solutions. Below, we discuss the ways in which the geopolitical border and heightened concerns regarding food safety have generated inspection practices that can stifle cross-border commerce for some while producing economic opportunities for others. Next, we document the extent of food waste produced within the transboundary food system and describe innovative initiatives that are repurposing this “waste” to feed the needy and enhance the fertility of arable lands in this binational region.

While certain illegal activities undoubtedly occur at the border, this inquiry focuses on the legal activities within the transnational food supply system that are unique to life in the borderlands. In particular, we wish to “daylight” the often hidden ways in which food passing across an international border affects the quality of the food itself and the multi-cultural communities, economies, and environments through which it moves. We use the U.S.–Mexico border and its most historically significant port of entry between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora in the post-NAFTA era to demonstrate the ways in which food supply chains are affected by transboundary processes.


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Laurel Bellante is a human-environment geographer specializing in food security and agrarian questions in both the United States and Mexico. She uses a political ecology approach to connect what is happening in people’s kitchens, farms, and rural communities to larger political economic and environmental changes occurring regionally, nationally, and globally.

Gary Paul Nabhan is founding Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. He has authored or edited 26 books and teaches and researches on topics including the political ecology of food, conservation ranching, sustainable food systems, climate change adaptation, and agrobiodiversity


Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment Vol. 38, Issue 2, pp. 104–112, ISSN 2153-9553, eISSN 2153-9561. ©2016 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/cuag.12075



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