Photo of an agave field in Mexico by Dr. Sarah Bowen, NCSU
Tequila is distilled from the blue agave plant and, according to Mexican law, can only be produced in a specific region of Mexico. This sort of distinction, known as a “geographical indication” (GI), conveys the geographical origin of a product, as well as its cultural and historical identity, NCSU said.
“Tequila and other GIs, such as Champagne and Napa Valley wine, are protected by a complicated set of organizations, agreements and laws worldwide that tie production to a specific place — making it impossible to outsource.
“But [a] new study, co-authored by NC State’s Dr. Sarah Bowen, shows that the tequila GI is neither socially nor ecologically sustainable, and may serve as a lesson for other regions in Asia and the Americas that are currently trying to establish GIs.”
Photo of tequila distillery in Mexico by Dr. Sarah Bowen, NCSU
In a paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Rural Studies, Bowen and the University of Guadalajara‘s Ana Valenzuela Zapata noted that the tequila industry has expanded considerably since the early 1990s, more than doubling its production between 1995 and 2005 alone. “But a series of factors, including pest and disease infestations and the fact that it takes at least six years for a blue agave plant to progress from planting to harvest, have contributed to significant instabilities in the supply of agave,” they said.
The supply problems, coupled with a surge in demand, have resulted in companies planting their own agave — rather than relying on independent farmers. This also means that agave is now being grown in areas that are within the tequila GI “zone,” but that have not previously been used for agave cultivation.
“These changes have contributed to a loss of traditional farming practices, such as the practice of pruning agave plants to control for pests. Instead, there has been a significant increase in the use of pesticides and other chemicals,” they say in the paper.
“Many of these changes are marginalizing independent agave farmers and workers,” Bowen says, “undermining the social foundation of the region that relies on the agave and tequila industries.”
The study also shows that the norms that define tequila production do little to preserve traditional tequila production methods. As a result, the social and environmental resources in the Amatitán-Tequila Valley, where tequila production originated over 400 years ago, are under threat.
“Overall, we conclude that the negative effects of the agave-tequila industry on the local economy and environment are due in large part to the failure of the GI for tequila to value the ways in which the terroir [see side bar] of tequila’s region of origin have contributed to its specific properties and taste characteristics,” the researchers say in their paper.
The study is significant because it provides a case study of how the lack of socioeconomic and ecological sustainability can create a vicious cycle where social concerns exacerbate environmental problems and vice versa, says the NCSU release.
“If GIs want to make real contributions to rural development and long-term environmental health,” Bowen says, “sustainable production practices should be incorporated into the legal framework of the GI itself.”
Related National Geographic News story: High Demand for Tequila Puts Mexico’s Dry Forests at Risk (2001)