West-central Mexico is home to the majority of Agave cultivation and tequila production in the world. Unfortunately, due to the large size of the tequila industry and the ever-increasing demand for tequila, Agave production use genetically limited, monocultural techniques, including vegetative propagation.
These monocultural techniques threaten biodiversity, decrease resilience and adaptive capacity of the Agave plants, and threaten the already high-risk Agave-pollinating bat species. It seems unlikely that people will voluntarily give up their tequila, so it is imperative that we find more sustainable ways to farm Agave before this system is destroyed.
This case study will outline this issue from a social-ecological systems perspective. This perspective entails evaluating an entire complex system as a whole, considering both the social systems that are of primary concern, such as governance and knowledge systems, as well as the ecological systems, such as how organisms interact with one another and their environment.
To begin, we will detail the social and ecological context of agaves in west-central Mexico, the development of the tequila industry, and its relation to bats. We will then analyze the various failures of monocultural Agave farming practices and previous responses, as well as the many structural lock-ins that are contributing to this issue using the key lock-ins of industrial agriculture from IPES-Food. Finally, we will provide three recommendations for improving this system in the future, keeping in mind who is responsible for this failure and who has the capacity for change.
Agave Ecology and Tequila Production
The genus Agave is a diverse plant group of over 200 species. They are keystone species in many arid and semi-arid regions and are particularly important in Mexico. Mexico has over 150 known species of agaves, and they are usually distributed in deserts, chaparrals, various types of forests and grasslands. Many local communities depend on agaves for food, fiber, beverages, fodder, shelter and ornaments. There is also growing interest in using agaves as an alternative biofuel source. In particular, blue agave (Agave tequilana) has been used for tequila production in Mexico since the 17th century.
The optimal environmental conditions for agaves are open areas with a lot of sunlight and rocky soils. They mature between the ages of 6 to 14 years old. When maturing, a 3- to 6-meter-tall inflorescence grows from the center of the plant, with water and nutrients provided by the leaves and the stem. Flowers grow on small branches of the inflorescence. When the agaves are used for tequila production, the inflorescence is removed to allow sugar and nutrients to concentrate at the central core of the plant, which is commonly called the “head” or “pinã.” It will then be harvested and cooked to extract the juice. The juice will then be fermented with yeast to make tequila.
These activities decreased the resilience of many ecosystems, the diversity within Agave in farms, and the agrobiodiversity around them. We expand on the loss of diversity in our analysis. The current state is a product of both the life history and ecology of Agave and of social and economic forces.
Co-Evolution of Bats and Agave
Bats (Chiroptera) are an extremely diverse group of mammals with 20 known families and over 1450 species worldwide. Across their range, bats fill a number of ecological niches, including plant pollination by feeding on the nectar and transporting pollen between plants. Among these species, three nectivorous bats have been identified as primary pollinators of agaves. These three species, Leptonycteris yerbabuenae (Lesser long-nosed bat), Leptonycteris nivalis (Mexican long-nosed bat), and Choeronycteris mexicana (Mexican long-tongued bat), have been shown to carry greater amounts of genetically diverse pollen over greater distances compared to other pollinators such as insects or birds. Furthermore, the species of nectar-feeding bats have specifically adapted their echolocation to find agaves across highly dispersed landscapes and are able to recognize the specific acoustic signature of the flowers they feed from. In fact, phylogenetic data suggests that agaves appear to be the same evolutionary age as Agave-pollinating bats, further highlighting the significant ecological connection between these species.
Social History of Tequila Production
Agave has been central to the Mexican population for millennia for a variety of uses, for textile fibers or molasse production or beverages. The production of mezcal (another alcoholic beverage made of Agave) and tequila developed with the arrival of Spanish settlers who imported the distillation process during the 17th century. Mezcal and tequila production in the Jalisco region, and specifically around the town of Tequila, developed during the 18th century, quickly becoming the main economic activity of the region, dominated by elite families of Spanish descent. Through political instabilities and land ownership restructurations, the process was industrialized during the 19th century, leading to a massive expansion of the haciendas - large domains run by family-owned firms such as José Cuervo or Herradura, vertically integrating production and transformation. As tequila production and export was peaking, the beginning of the 20th century saw an important economic and political crisis with the Mexican revolution, leading to the break of large haciendas and redistribution of the land. The relationship established between multiple small agave farmers and tequila distillers was not well-coordinated and the industry saw several cycles of shortages due to the long agaves cultivation process described above. At that time, different arrangements existed between farmers and distillers, for instance, through small-holders selling their production on the market or contracts with specific distillers. However, the scale of production was nothing compared to the scale today. Much of the land was still intercropped with Agave and other traditional crops. Additionally, chemicals were used at a much smaller rate than they are today, since the extensification of monoculture had not yet increased agave’s level of vulnerability to disease.
During the 1950s to 1970s, standards were officially established to protect the quality of the tequila produced. However, the increasing pressure and demand from the distillers soon revised this standard to allow for the production of lower quality tequila. As international capital began penetrating the industry, industrialisation increased and quality standards were loosened even more. Paradoxically, tequila’s Denomination of Origin (DO) was established at that period in 1974. A Denomination of Origin is a legal tool that recognizes the intellectual property of a product and its name to a certain localized entity. Here, the Mexican government became legal owners of the term “tequila” and decided on the restricted area where it could be produced.
The 1980s were the time of structural adjustments, when the Mexican economy was reorganized along the principles of free trade, privatization, and deregulation. The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), a private non-profit organization, was created in 1993 to manage the DO standards and enforce application of the DO. At the turn of the century, as the DO was recognised internationally (e.g., through NAFTA agreement or by the European Union), tequila production and export skyrocketed. For instance, production more than tripled between 1995 and 2019.
Through this history, although mainly during the 20th century and beyond, tequila has been advertised as being a core part of the Mexican identity. Interestingly, this brought together nationalism and cultural integrity discourses and neoliberal shifts of the industry. Tequila is now undeniably recognised as one of the major Mexican cultural landmarks.
Nowadays, tequila is a fast-growing market that represented USD 9.89 billion globally in 2021. It therefore presents complex dynamics, linking the local communities to the global markets, that we could consider both socially and economically unsustainable. We will detail the unsustainable nature of this system in the following sections of this report.
Our analysis will develop as follows: first, we will introduce the lock-ins framework from IPES-Food (2016) that will be used to ground our analysis and the following recommendations. Second, we will describe the impacts and dynamics of the ecological system in reaction to destructive agricultural practices. Finally, we will outline the social and economic dimensions of the most salient lock-ins operating within this social-ecological system.
Lock-ins are mechanisms that prevent change in the food system and keep in place the industrial regimes. They can be related to conceptual barriers, the market structure, political structures or other social-ecological processes. Lock-ins can facilitate entrenchment of the current practices, but also reveal leverage points in the system. Our analysis focuses on the failures of the current system that function as a lock-in mechanism.
The analysis below is grounded in the lock-ins framework presented by the IPES-Food (2016) report From uniformity to diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. It presents the different lock-ins they identified for industrial agriculture systems that stem from a concentration of power: export orientation, expectation of cheap food, feed the world narratives, compartmentalized thinking, short term thinking, measures of success and path dependency. Those structures and conceptual barriers reinforce each other and entrench the system in the unsustainable state that we described. Some lock-ins are much more visible and strong in our system, such as the export orientation and the concentration of power, while others are less obvious but still present indirectly, like "feed the world narratives'' and "compartmentalized thinking".
Ecological Resilience and Current Practices
Ecological resilience is the speed at which a system returns to its former state after a perturbation. Such states are called stable states. As systems can have more than one stable state, some of them might be considered unsuitable for agriculture. Indeed, human activities can trigger a shift between states, depending on the resistance of the system. Resistance is the amount of perturbation a system can absorb before shifting. The resilience and resistance of the tequila agroecosystem will determine the lasting ecosystem-wide impacts of transition to large-scale production of Agave. Our analysis is a preliminary attempt to understand how the system has changed and whether it might be in an alternative state. Accordingly, the ecological analysis spans across three scales: we begin at the population level, advance to the relationship between bats and Agave, and end with broad ecosystem impacts.
Agricultural practices shape the genetic makeup of Agave populations in farms. Looking at the genetic diversity of these Agave populations shines a light on their adaptive capacity in the face of environmental change and their resilience to pests and harsh conditions. In wild populations, pollination between distant populations and local adaptation can maintain genetic diversity. In cultivated varieties, agricultural practices control the level of genetic diversity. Traditional farmers often use a variety of sources to select for desired features. They could mix plants from wild populations or from other producers in their communities, and would allow some plants to flower. As a result, traditional Agave populations maintain a high level of genetic diversity. Traditional practices could also contribute to the agrobiodiversity in and around the plantation, as they allow trees and weeds to grow between the plants and around them, and use less herbicides and pesticides.
In contrast, industrial farms use intensive monocultures. They often trade propagules with nearby producers and use clones within the plantation. The tolerance to other plants is lower in industrial farms, as they more often apply herbicides and pesticides to remove weeds. A shift to a mainly industrial regime may put the diversity of Agave populations and species depending on Agave at risk. Traditional plantations have higher richness due to practices of admixture between varieties and flowering of a portion of the plants that sustain pollination. Industrial plantations reduce the diversity of Agave in plantations. This process can trigger a chain reaction and threaten the agrobiodiversity both in commercial and traditional plantations.
Bats and Climate Change
Agave-pollinating bats are seeing significant declines in their populations with all three species listed as either near-threatened or endangered under international regulations. The primary causes of stressors on these bats are climate change and habitat fragmentation with warming and extreme weather events threatening wild stocks of agaves. Since current tequila farming practices harvest agaves before they are mature enough to flower, these bats are unable to utilize them as a food source, increasing the reliance on wild stocks. These two groups have coevolved and share 26% of their range, as bats follow Agave and other plant blooms when they migrate. According to future climate projections, Agave species ranges are expected to retreat north, while the Mexican long-nosed bat is expected to retreat south. The area of suitable environments for several Agave species will be reduced by 80%, with the overlap between agaves and nectar-feeding bats ranges reducing by at least 75% by 2050.
In addition to this range shift putting populations of agaves at extinction risk, changes to the precipitation-dependent flowering periods of agaves could lead to a mismatch with the presence of available bat pollinators, i.e. agaves may flower when there are no bats present to pollinate. Thus, although the shift in flowering periods seems adaptive from the agaves’ point of view, it could result in a phenological mismatch with unpredictable consequences. These pressures on agaves create a feedback loop that limits food availability for the bats and reduces opportunity for pollination. The result is diminished genetic diversity of agaves, which in turn threatens agricultural agaves, further impacting the resilience of this system.
Broader Ecosystem Impacts
As the keystone species in their habitats, the degradation of agaves’ health and diversity could lead to serious negative impacts on other species and agroecosystems. Agaves have complex ecological interactions with many other species. In addition to bats, other pollinators, including bees, birds, ants, and small mammals, also feed on their flowers and seeds. Having abundant pollinators can increase ecosystem productivity as they can also facilitate the reproduction of other species, such as fruit trees. Preventing agaves from blooming cuts off a critical food source for all those pollinators. Agaves also provide important habitat for reptiles, such as lizards and snakes, which are control agents for insect and rodent populations in the system. In the industrialized monoculture system, the crops will be harvested all at once every 8 to 10 years. As a result, during early years of growth, young agaves cannot provide suitable habitat for the reptiles, which then could lead to an increase in insect plague and in turn damage crop quality. Furthermore, agaves are nurse plants for succulent plants and other small plant species, critical for biotic community recovery. Their health and diversity are essential for ecosystem resilience, and more broadly for all the economic activity that depends on them.
The unsustainable practices are not only endangering the biotic communities but also threatening the underlying ecological processes in the systems. One major issue is soil erosion. Healthy agaves not only help retain soil structure and humidity but also promote water infiltration. Meanwhile, they provide “vegetal coverage” to erosive rains. In industrialized monoculture, however, there are large gaps between individual plants during early years of growth, which leads to serious soil erosion. In addition, industrialized farms tend to plant rows of agaves parallel to the hill slopes, which makes it easier for them to roll down agave heads when harvesting but further facilitates soil erosion. Deforestation, resulting from land use change for agave plantation, also largely contributed to soil erosion and the loss of ecosystem services associated with the forests.
The intensive monoculture system also uses excessive chemical fertilizers and herbicides, resulting in water pollution and soil degradation. Crop homogeneity makes agaves more susceptible to pests and diseases, increasing the need for more intensive use of pesticides. The overuse of pesticides also selects for pests with higher toxic resistance, requiring even more toxic agro-chemicals. These together result in a lock-in for intense chemical inputs.
Through habitat destruction and erosion of diversity, current agricultural practices therefore threaten the ecological resilience of the whole ecosystem. The organization of the agave-tequila production is not only impacting ecological resilience but is also socially unsustainable and affecting local communities.
Social and Economic Impacts and Failures
The destructive agricultural practices outlined above are promoted by the social-economic context of agave production. As we described in the previous section, the agave-tequila history is full of economic and social changes that led to today’s neoliberal system, where cost-effectiveness is the priority and tequila production is organized for export. In the following section, we will detail the social, economic and policy failures of the actual model.
Knowledge and Social Failures and Lock-Ins
First of all, the marginalization of traditional farming and distillation methods threatens historical knowledge. This is shown through the fact that the Denomination of Origin has expanded way beyond the historical range of tequila production and agave farming to include homogenized farming practices, species cultivation and the taste of the final product that has been detached from the original origin of agave. For instance, nothing indicates that agave should come from a specific portion of the Denomination of Origin area, even though there are highly heterogeneous contexts within that area. Industrial tequila is therefore always a blend. It is never “rooted” and does not have a location-specific taste like traditional mezcal. In fact, small-scale holders are often pushed to lease their land to another company that then organizes the production of it, employing cheap laborers to perform automated tasks and therefore delegitimizing the holistic knowledge and practices of traditional farmers. Intermediaries are often used by the companies to bypass labor laws and to avoid having to pay for social security. Tetreault et al. found this human exploitation to be an intrinsic part of the extractive nature of the agave-tequila system nowadays. Additionally, the agave production expansion has also led to a displacement or replacement of traditional crops, threatening local food security. With the marginalization and dispossession of local and traditional communities, the current organization is highly unfair and unsustainable.
Governance Failure and Lock-In
Today, the tequila industry is highly centralized and has been described as oligopolistic, as only a handful of actors; the biggest distillers often owned by transnational firms, control the governance of tequila production. From the beginning of the 21st century, the major firms such as José Cuervo or Sauza have integrated the production process vertically, now owning a great share of land or lending small-holders lands (as mentioned in the section above) and controlling the production. Independent farmers continue to exist and distillers continue to buy from them, though mostly through intermediaries, or coyotes, that don’t ensure contractual and fair exchange. The oligopolistic nature of the system is also visible in the regulations framework. The Tequila Denomination of Origin, though being publicly owned by the Mexican state, is enforced and controlled by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT). While public representatives and producer associations are part of the Council, decisions are dominated by the biggest firms (often directly by the international parent company) that organize the market in their interests. There is therefore a systemic failure of the Denomination of Origin and regulating institutions to protect quality, traditional knowledge in agave-tequila production. It is a clear example of the neoliberal shift or “globalization from within” of the Mexican economy, where there is a transfer of public function to private actors to benefit extra-local actors.
Economically, even though the industrial process of tequila making remains domestic, it does not benefit local communities as the international firms keep control of the whole value chain. This exploitation of the resources and labor force by international capital has been described as agro-extractivist.
The internationally renown tequila also draws tourists to touristic complexes in the Denomination of Origin area. They are run by the major firms and are very lucrative for shareholders. However, they are way less for the local communities, as those are often a one-stop attraction channeling the bulk of the tourists.
According to Bowen and Gaytán, this dispossession organized by the firms in power is vicious, as it is rooted in the recognised and legitimate highest instances of power. Culturally, the most powerful actors are deciding what Tequila is, through regulations and marketing, using nationalist and traditionalist rhetoric. As such, a whole part of what has been naturalized as Mexican identity is controlled to accommodate international capital accumulation while dispossessing local communities of their knowledge, their wealth, and a significant part of their culture.
In summation, the social and economic lock-ins of the agave-tequila production system are visible in the marginalization of traditional knowledge as well as in the failure of the Denomination of Origin and the institutions in charge of it, that fail to protect local interests and are trusted by the biggest actors. Those locks-in are deeply rooted in the neoliberal and agro-extractivist system relayed from the globalized economy by the Mexican institutions.
We therefore articulated our three recommendations as follows: (1) the optimal on-farm practices to sustain ecosystem resilience; (2) at the consumer level, emphasizing the role of labels; and (3) at the broader political-economic level, how governance could be transformed to protect local interests and entrench resilience.
Ecology and Agro-system Recommendation: Traditional Practices and Agro-ecology
The first recommendation is a transition from the intensive monocultural systems to sustainable systems that integrate traditional farming practices and innovative agroecological techniques, including agroforestry and evolutionary rescue to address climate change.
Reviving Traditional Ecological Knowledge
It is increasingly recognized that the long history of interactions between local communities and agaves have accumulated valuable traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) about species distribution, abundance, interactions, and so on. Existing case studies have suggested that many abandoned traditional practices used by local farmers can help preserve biological diversity and environmental integrity. Based on the examination of the case studies, we recommend the following three agricultural practices:
1) Lay out agave borders perpendicular to slopes to capture rainfall and decrease soil erosion, improving soil humidity and fertility.
2) In addition to blue agave, plant multiple Agave species (e.g., A. angustifolia Haw. and A. rhodacantha Trel). They can act as "living fences" to create a productive multi-section system, which can support agriculture, forest resource use and livestock production simultaneously.
3) Plant traditional food crops (e.g., corn, beans, squash) along with agaves to maintain high species richness and niche heterogeneity, which reduces pests and diseases as well as the need for agro-chemicals.
Agroforestry is not a new concept in agave production in Mexico, but those diverse systems have been largely replaced by simplified monocultures. Homegardens are a common type of traditional agroforestry systems in Mexico, which are located near farmers’ houses. However, they usually cover small areas and have low agave densities, unable to meet the increasing global demand. Studies have suggested that new agroforestry practices can potentially increase agave density to meet consumer needs while maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems. Based on Ibarrola-Rivas (2010)’s sustainability assessment of different agave production systems and the recommendations in their paper, we propose two innovative agroforestry practices:
1) An Agave-and-Tree Planting Program. Traditional agave planting programs are used to recover agave populations that have declined or depleted in the forests. Decades of industrialized farming has led to both a decrease in agave diversity and the destruction of native forests. The proposed Agave-and-Tree Planting Program aims to simultaneously recover agaves and native trees. Like traditional agave planting programs, seeds will be collected from wild agaves in healthy forests and then planted in nurseries. When they reach 1.5 to 2 years old, they will be translocated to fenced areas in suitable parts of the targeted forest. Meanwhile, reforestation will take place at the forest, gradually expanding the suitable area for agave planting. This program can potentially restore ecological integrity to achieve long-term sustainable agave production. The limitation is that it will require stable financial support from the government or external organizations.
2) A Partial Seed Spreading System. A seed spreading system is a system where all ages of agaves grow together along with some trees and herbs. Every year, the best agave crops are selected as seeders for reproduction. Their inflorescences are cut and placed near the ground to spread seeds only within a fenced area to achieve higher density. This allows harvest to occur every year instead of every 10 years, which not only helps secure farmers’ annual livelihoods but also reduces their vulnerability to extreme weather events. Compared to agave planting programs, seed spreading systems can achieve higher agave densities, potentially even higher than monocultures, but preserve fewer ecosystem services. To achieve higher ecological integrity, the Partial Seed Spreading System will only convert small parts of a forest into the spreading system and make sure they are spaced out near the borders of the forest. This will allow genetic communication between cultivated and wild agaves, reducing the risk of losing genetic diversity. The limitations are that it has high labor requirements and species living in the ecotone can be threatened.
Finally, evolutionary theory can be used to mitigate the effects of climate change on agaves. When subjected to a new environmental pressure, populations can either decline or persist. The key to surviving a strong stress following a rapid environmental change is high enough genetic variation, because it determines both the potential for adaptation and its limits. The adaptive potential of Agave crops in the current practices is extremely low, which will impede their adaptation as the climate warms. The emerging idea of evolutionary rescue addresses these issues by intentionally introducing genetic diversity and adaptive genes to domesticated crops. This framework could work in tandem with applications of traditional ecological knowledge and agroforestry techniques.
Evolutionary rescue harnesses mechanisms of adaptation to applied problems. It involves deliberate introduction of genetic diversity and its maintenance using well-known mechanisms such as hybridization, intentional selection that uses existing variation, and intentional immigration from other crop populations. Increasing the genetic diversity means allowing agaves to bloom, relying on bats to carry pollen from faraway populations and to decrease the extent of cloning. Traditional farming techniques take advantage of all these mechanisms to some degree. However, facilitating an adaptation for a specific perturbation entails different course of action - direct use populations that are more adapted to the projected climate for the Jalisco area. For example, it would be more beneficial to deliberately interbreed blue agave with populations from arid environments, or populations that acquired resistance to pests. Another option would be to grow plants for tequila production in greenhouses with desired selection pressures, to create adapted varieties. Such conditions can include projected climate conditions and the presence of pests and weeds. Complementing long-standing practices with evolutionary rescue can increase the adaptive capacity of farmers and of tequila production. Technological changes in agricultural practices offer opportunities to improve the resilience of the system, but are not enough to make tequila production sustainable. Incentives for consumers and producers matter as well.
Bat-Friendly Tequila Labels
Our second recommendation is to utilize bat-friendly tequila labels. In fact, this initiative has already begun under the Bat FriendlyTM Project. Since 2016, all agave distilled beverages (including tequila) that receive the Bat FriendlyTM label have undergone a series of visits to confirm that they have allowed at least 5% of the agaves to flower, bats have visited and fed from those flowers, and the remaining 95% of the agaves have been transported to the processing plant. Similar eco-labels have been shown to be effective at influencing consumer behavior in the past. For instance, the implementation of the Dolphin-Safe tuna label in the U.S. market in 1990 resulted in a decrease in tuna purchases when the label was still rare and a subsequent increase in dolphin-safe tuna purchases when the label became more readily available. In theory, the Bat FriendlyTM label should operate in a similar manner. As the Bat FriendlyTM label and the issue of monocultural agave farming becomes more known by consumers, sales of regular tequila should decrease and sales of Bat FriendlyTM tequila should increase. Especially considering that most consumers tend to have a highly positive opinion towards the concept of such labels, whether they fully understand its functioning or not.
Since consumers will likely be drawn to purchasing Bat-FriendlyTM tequila over non-Bat-FriendlyTM tequila, this would also serve as an incentive for larger tequila production companies to go through the process of obtaining the certification. If Bat-FriendlyTM labels become more popular with consumers, it may benefit larger companies to adopt Bat-FriendlyTM practices in order to stay competitive in the market.
However, it is also important to consider the public’s perception of bats and how that may influence the future success or failure of the Bat-FriendlyTM label. Unlike dolphins, bats have had a history of being perceived negatively by humans, especially due to misconceptions of disease. Therefore, utilizing bats as the poster species for the entire agave ecosystem in Mexico may not be as effective as we hope, although there have been no credible studies on this issue to date. It may be useful to continue to study the Bat-FriendlyTM label to determine whether public perceptions of bats will influence the success of the initiative.
Additionally, Kliem and Wolter (2022) insist that establishing a credible certification agency and building consumer trust are imperative first steps for enacting a labeling scheme such as the Dolphin-Safe tuna or Bat-FriendlyTM tequila labels. Luckily, that process has already begun with the Bat FriendlyTM Project. Unfortunately, the label is still extremely rare. Not many consumers are aware of the existence of Bat FriendlyTM tequila, and those who are find it difficult to locate and expensive to purchase. Additionally, many agave farms may not have the resources to obtain the label, given that it requires multiple visits and putting aside a minimum of 5% of their crop. Larger structural changes are therefore necessary to simplify this process for the agave farmers.
Political Economy Recommendation: Addressing Policy and Economic Lock-Ins Through Regulation
The final recommendation, probably with the most potential impact but also the most difficult to implement, is a profound redefinition of the political-economic framework of agave-tequila production. As discussed above, economic stakes are high and power relations strong. The policy leverage point is nonetheless a very effective one that could change the rules of the system. Our last recommendation is to encourage public institutions to implement strong policies to defend local interests against international extractivism and the concentration of power. This last recommendation is therefore intended to address the central lock-in, the concentration of power, the core process that undermines diversity and resilience.
Local Governance and Strong Public Institutions
The concentration of power in the system is strongly locked-in by the influence of international capital: the trans-national groups that own the biggest distilleries and brands. They are also responsible for the prioritization of cost-effectiveness and the lowering of quality standards through their presence and lobbying in the Mexican public institutions and the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT). This oligopolistic organization is, by essence, extremely difficult to transform. It will require a strong political will by the public authorities, mobilization from the population, farmers and other local forces, and potentially increased support and pressure by increasing international awareness to break away from that domination.
The Council and other public regulatory institutions should not only include but prioritize local interests and actors. By making the local communities central to the decision-making process and organization of the sector, we can ensure a fair public debate, and that decisions are oriented towards local benefits to counter the influence of the biggest actors. This new governance organization could implement the prioritization of local interests or a veto right, a power to unilaterally oppose and stop any decision. The inclusion of local and diversified actors in positions of power could lead to a redefinition of the governance and rules of the agave-tequila production system.
Regulation Evolution: The Denomination of Origin
Fair negotiations within the Tequila Regulation Council and other public institutions led by the diversity of local actors could lead to a much needed redefinition of the regulations of tequila production that permits and maintains extractivist and destructive practices today.
The central document framing tequila production is the Denomination of Origin. Redefinition of the DO, with a stronger link to the territory could have a determinant impact of the concentration of power and homogenization of the production. We propose to redefine the DO using the concept of terroir which is the historical basis for all denominations of origin. The terroir concept considers the cultural and ecological uniqueness of a territory to set the quality standard. Nowadays, the DO area keeps on expanding, now including places that do not have a tequila tradition. A meaningful DO would mean that regions that have no history of tequila production couldn't produce tequila, or it would have to be called a different name. In the same way, the quality standard of the historic region of tequila production would be increased and practices such as blends with agave from very different territories and traditions would be forbidden.
That moment of redefinition will permit a reappropriation of the distinct territories, ecological contexts and traditional practices, and probably emergent local denominations, with their own standards, inviting new knowledge and considerations to the table. It could, for example, help to introduce bat-friendly agroecology practices to the production specifications in certain areas that would be disengaged with the biggest distillers' low-cost standards. That also invites back, more than tequila, the original diversity of mezcals, produced with different agave species, different methods that reflect specific places and traditions, against the homogenisation of flavor arranged by exporters to make it a consensual mass-consumed product. In that sense, it could be an important moment of cultural reappropriation of this Mexican icon and increase the social and organizational diversity, making the whole system more innovative and resilient. This redefinition of the Denomination of Origin could therefore serve its original purpose, being a tool to protect local interests against the negative effects of the co-optation of this sector by extra-local actors.
Overall, even though the strong power relations in place will make it difficult to change the system, a meaningful redefinition of the Denomination of Origin decided by a diversity of local actors could have a profound impact in making the agave-tequila production system sustainable by ensuring ecological and social resilience.
Throughout this paper we have discussed the importance of Agave not only for the tequila industry, but as a keystone species for the entire ecosystem. If Agave were to become extinct, this would negatively impact many species of plants and animals in West-Central Mexico, including several important bat species, and would likely have negative impacts felt across the world. Despite this, people continue to farm agaves using monocultural techniques that threaten the resilience of the species, such as cloning and the farming of immature agaves. We completed an in-depth literature review in an attempt to determine why these harmful practices are continuing despite this knowledge, and utilized the lock-ins framework from IPES-Food (2016) to ground our analysis. We found that each of the eight key lock-ins to industrial agriculture outlined in this framework can apply to the case of industrialized agave farming, with a higher emphasis on the export orientation and concentration of power lock-ins.
Based on our findings, we outlined three recommendations to improve agave farming practices moving forward. First, we described the optimal farming practices of agave to promote ecological resilience, which included reviving Traditional Ecological Knowledge, innovative agroforestry, and adaptive introgression. Our second recommendation focused on incentivizing consumers and tequila companies to support these agroecological agave farming practices by obtaining and purchasing the Bat-FriendlyTM tequila label. Our final recommendation highlighted the necessity of public institutions to implement policies to defend local interests against international extractivism and the concentration of power as well as redefining the Denomination of Origin.
Whether you care about agave plants, bats, broader ecosystems in West-Central Mexico, or simply sipping margaritas by the pool, the long-term resilience of the agave plant is vital to sustain our current way of life. This social-ecological system needs to move towards a more sustainable path. So, tell your friends, lobby for policy changes, and if nothing else, choose Bat-FriendlyTM tequila over regular tequila when the opportunity arises.
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|This resource was created by Aaron Aguirre, Caroline Gelin, Erga Peter, Jade Radke, & Yuqing Cheng.It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.|