Tequila’s soaring popularity is creating agricultural risks that may force its own collapse if current production practices continue.
A bit of background
Tequila has been made from the agave plant in Mexico for hundreds of years. The agave is sometimes called the century plant because of a myth that it blooms once in a century and then dies. Well, there’s some truth to this. It does die after it flowers, but it actually takes roughly 8 to 10 years to mature.
To prevent the agave from flowering, farmers closely monitor their crops and cut off any flower stalks so that the agave will continue to grow. When the agave’s sugar content is high enough for fermentation (at least 24 percent), the plant is harvested. Leaves are cut off and discarded. The heart of the plant, or piña, is then carted off and sold to tequila producers. The piña gets its name from its resemblance to an enormous pineapple, weighing in at roughly 50-100 pounds. The piñas are then roasted, mashed, fermented, strained, distilled, and sometimes aged, to make tequila.
Wait, don’t no flowers mean no seeds?
It might be reasonable to assume that the farmers would allow a selection of plants to flower to produce seeds for the next crop. But in the case of the agave, they don’t have to.
Agave is a succulent, one of those wonderful, strange plants that are so adept at asexual reproduction that, in many species, a single leaf has the potential to sprout roots and grow into a fully functioning adult plant. The agave, for example, sends out shoots, known as pups. Fortunately for farmers, the agave becomes especially eager to create pups when its means of sexual reproduction is disrupted in some way, such as by cutting off its flowering stalk. This is ideal for farmers, who can collect the pups to populate their fields in lieu of seed stock.
Using shoots or pups is cheaper, faster and easier than growing from seed. Unfortunately, the cost of convenience is the absence of genetic diversity of the agave stock. In 2007 it was estimated that that 99 percent of all cultivated agave were the products of pups. In genetic terms, most cultivated agave plants are clones. Without sexual reproduction, there is no genetic exchange between plants. This genetic sameness produces precarious conditions for the health of future crops, as genetic diversity creates obstacles that pests must overcome, thereby slowing their spread and damage.
In the last 30 years, tequila has ballooned in popularity, with producers scrambling to keep up with demand. In less than a decade, the
industry has seen propagation boom from 40,000 acres cultivated with Weber Blue agave to nearly 120,000 acres. This created an overabundance, and thus a flooded market. Prices for agave plummeted from $4 per pound to pennies, highlighting the risks of trying to predict the market when it takes 10 years for a crop to be ready for harvest.
But after planting 120,000 acres with a single strain, of a single crop, of which 99 percent of plants are vegetally propagated genetic clones, the tequila industry now has more to worry about than simply forecasting demand. This kind of agricultural management takes the concept of monoculture to a new level. It practically warrants a new word!
Monoculture makes crops vulnerable, and the predictable consequence is disease. This is why big agribusiness spends so much money on fungicides and pesticides. Just look what monoculture did to the Gros Michel banana. Today, the world consumes Cavendish bananas. But prior to the 1950’s, the Gros Michel, which was said to have been the most flavorful of all banana varieties, would have been in your local grocery store. Then came Panama Disease, caused by a fungus, which tore through the world’s banana plantations and very nearly resulted in the extinction of the Gros Michel.
With monoculture brought to the genetic level, Weber Blue agave today is an easy target for pests, with weevils, nematodes, fungi and bacteria ravaging the fields. Weevils boar into the hard husk, creating access points into the plant for the fungus and bacteria. Once an insect is inside the plant, pesticides are largely ineffective.
The best course of action for producers of Weber Blue agave is to work with seed stock, and intercrop with some of the other 10 heirloom varieties of agave that are viable for making tequila. But government standards prevent this from happening. Only liquor produced within the area surrounding the town of Tequila, and made with Weber Blue agave, may be called tequila. Other varieties can only be called mescal.
To avoid the inevitable consequences of monoculture, the simple and obvious solution would be for the government to modify regulations governing these designations. But the industry is loathe to do so for fear of compromising the integrity of the product and losing its designation as “tequila.”
Just as the Gros Michel banana was considered to be the most delicious of all strains of bananas, so is Weber Blue regarded among agave varieties. But if the Weber Blue agave meets the same fate as the Gros Michel, a great many tequila lovers will have reason to mourn.
# # #
Stewart, A. (2013). The drunken botanist: The plants that create the world’s great drinks. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
by Katharine Galpin