Guadalajara, Mexico, Jul 12 (EFE).- The agave landscape of the western Mexican state of Jalisco and that region’s tequila facilities marked 17 years on the UNESCO World Heritage List on Wednesday.
But a rapid rise in demand for that distilled alcoholic beverage over the past decade has triggered an increase in spaces dedicated to monoculture farming, a practice known to exacerbate the climate crisis.
According to experts consulted by Efe, the increase in the amount of land used to grow blue agave, the base ingredient of tequila, contributes to the loss of key ecosystems and causes farmers to stop producing basic grains such as corn.
The agave landscape recognized in 2006 by UNESCO has now extended to woodlands and hillsides in Jalisco, as well as to other nearby states such as Guanajuato and Michoacan.
The mass farming of agave ensures that producers can meet tequila demand that has grown 526 percent in nearly three decades, according to Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT).
The goal is to “produce as much as possible in the least amount of time and space possible, and this can only be achieved with fertilizers, insecticides,” Danae Cabrera, an ecologist who studies this issue, said in an interview.
Pablo Montaño, coordinator of the Conexiones Climaticas (Climate Connections) organization, told Efe that it is common for tequila producers to resort to the deforestation of natural spaces.
“There are different phenomena: one is the removal of woodlands and forests” where native flora is substituted for blue agave plants, he said, adding that “there’s a lot of evidence of fires linked later to agave farming.”
According to the CRT, in the five states where tequila – a “denomination of origin” beverage – can be legally produced, agave crops are distributed across 413,870 hectares (1,600 square miles) in 173 municipalities.
In 2017, a total of 29 million plants were available to tequila producers, while five years later that number soared to 375 million plants.
In Jalisco, the state with the largest number of blue agave plants and highest tequila production, it is increasingly common for agave plantations to invade hillsides and protected areas such as the La Primavera Biosphere Reserve.
BEVERAGE WITH A CLIMATE IMPACT
Experts say that invasion destroys tropical forest ecosystems and prevents a higher level of absorption of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas.
“We’re removing forest mass that helps halt or mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, forests that allow you to reduce temperatures,” Montaño said.
The dry deciduous tropical forest of Jalisco is regarded as one of the ecosystems most resistant to the effects of global warming due to the characteristics of its flora and fauna.
But destroying it and imposing monoculture farming promotes the loss of trees and of the natural system that depends on them.
“All of the ecological cycles of that territory established millions of years ago are broken,” said Cabrera, who also is a professor at the University of Guadalajara.
UNSUSTAINABLE TEQUILA PRODUCTION
Experts say this rhythm of production is unsustainable in the medium term due to the risk of a loss of productive land for planting agave.
The alternative is for the tequila industry to lower the intensity of its production, restore damaged land and implement agroforestry systems in which agave plants are interspersed with other types of trees and flowers, Cabrera said.
“These are much lower scales of production, but more diverse,” she added.
Montaño said for his part that it is time for business leaders to pause and contemplate the future of their industry.
“It may seem like the tequila producers are committed to earning all the money they can, but in reality they’re cutting the branch they’re sitting on.” EFE