Racial Inequities in Food Systems - An Analysis of the Mexican and Brazilian Cases
The goal of this project was to analyze how racial inequities play out in food systems in Mexico and Brazil, as well as to identify gaps in the existing scholarship on the topic in these countries. The Latin American narrative of racial mixing creating post-racial societies (known as mestizaje/mestiçagem) is the backdrop for this analysis. Although large racial disparities show up in both countries’ food systems, ideas of mestizaje heavily influence the scholarship produced on the topic and often obscure the racial aspect of social inequities.
The majority of the literature on the topic of racial inequities in food systems is produced in and focused on the United States. However, structural racism is a prevailing and often covert force that shapes differential access to resources and opportunities in many different societies around the world. When excluding US-focused resources from a literature search, we found that most results focused on other countries in the Americas (including Canada and Latin America), Australia, New Zealand, and, to a lesser extent, European countries.
In both countries, the strongest scholarship identified through this project focuses on food insecurity and nutritional status in isolated rural communities, where Indigenous and African identities have remained “untouched” by mestizaje narratives. Research is necessary to capture the large gaps outside of such contexts and identify race-specific mechanisms contributing to inequities in both countries’ food systems. This can only be achieved through context-appropriate methods that effectively engage with Mexicans’ and Brazilians’ perceptions of racial identities.
In Mexico, racial disparities are evident in rural settings, but discussions about the racial aspect of inequities in urban settings are greatly lacking.
- Foods associated with Indigenous culture have historically been seen as inferior. Food has played an important part in Mexico’s history of racial relations, and foods associated with Indigenous culture were looked down on for a long time. The 1940 Census, for example, collected data on people’s habit of eating corn tortillas, seen as an indicator of backwardness. The Mexican government promoted switching to wheat and adopting European cuisines as key to modernizing the Mexican mestizo.
- Indigenous communities have higher rates of food insecurity and face a dual burden of undernutrition and obesity, with particularly high sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. Indigenous people are undergoing an intense process of nutrition transition in Mexico. While pockets of undernutrition remain among Indigenous communities, their obesity rates have also been on the rise – and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is particularly high among them. These disparities are documented based only on household language as a marker of Indigenous identity, which poses great limitations to capturing racial disparities outside of Indigenous communities in rural areas.
- Indigenous peasants face large inequities in land access, livelihoods, and labor in the Mexican countryside. Because of NAFTA and recent neoliberal policies that put an end to Mexico’s land reform, Indigenous peasants have largely lost access to land and income from food production. As a result, many have resorted to seasonal migration to work in export-oriented agriculture, where they face discrimination, lower wages, and extremely poor work conditions – often justified with overtly racist discourse.
- Strategies targeting racial disparities are insufficient. The Mexican government targets such disparities mainly with ameliorative strategies, including cash transfers, provision of agricultural supplies, and nutritional supplementation. These efforts are insufficient to address food insecurity in many communities, do not provide them with a sustainable source of food and livelihood, and are often culturally inadequate.
- In urban Mexico, the mestizaje narrative still obscures possible racial aspects of inequities in food access and dietary quality. This is an important gap, given that mestizo society is highly stratified based on (often non-explicit) racial biases.
- Current research on genetic predispositions to obesity pathologizes racial groups. In addressing Mexico’s obesity epidemic, the government has been emphasizing research on the genetic and epigenetic predisposition to obesity and diabetes among people of Indigenous heritage. While there is genomic evidence supporting this hypothesis, it also ends up playing into old notions of eugenics that pathologize a specific racial group in the public eye and distracts from the importance of social determinants of health disparities.
In Brazil, race-specific discussions in the context of food systems are mostly focused on Indigenous and quilombola (traditional Black) communities in rural areas, and only tangentially discussed in other contexts.
- Brazil’s narratives of racial harmony are misleading, and European foods were considered superior. Food has played a contradictory role in Brazil’s history of racial relations. On one side, the thinkers behind Brazil’s mestiçagem narrative steered away from scientific racism by arguing that lack of adequate nutrition, not racial inferiority, was at the root of Brazil’s issues. On the other, they promoted certain European foods as superior (such as wheat over the native cassava), and painted a harmonious picture of African, Indigenous, and European cuisines coming together in the country that erased the power relations between these racial groups.
- Since colonial times, land has been extremely concentrated in the hands of a white elite in Brazil. Land distribution remains highly eschewed, with Black and pardo people representing 68.9% of the landless and 74.1% of smallholders, and only 12% of large landowners. Yet, the literature on food sovereignty and land access rarely makes race a central angle of analysis when discussing structural inequality in Brazil. The country’s prominent Landless Workers Movement (MST), which has been at the forefront of the struggle for land redistribution, also barely touches on the racial aspect of land concentration, and does not make racial equity a central tenet of land reform.
- Indigenous and quilombola communities face severe food insecurity and land loss. In many cases, these communities have limited space for food production and rare opportunities to earn income, leading to concerning levels of food insecurity. They also face great threats of land grabbing by agribusiness landowners in many areas.
- Overall, Black and pardo Brazilians are more likely to be food insecure and to have unhealthy diets, high BMIs, and diet-related non-communicable diseases. The largest spikes in obesity rates in recent decades have been among the poor, who are disproportionally Black and pardo Brazilians.
- Despite the racial disparities in public health statistics, the literature identified does not discuss race-specific social mechanisms leading to differential health outcomes. There is a widespread overreliance on socioeconomic status to explain all social inequities, a tendency that is deeply entrenched in Brazil’s mestiçagem narrative.