Article image

Blue agave and bats face a sustainability crisis in Mexico 

Tequila, a drink synonymous with celebrations, is facing a sustainability crisis. Beyond the lime wedges and salt lies a complex ecological story involving the blue agave plant and bats, which are both under threat due to current agricultural practices. 

A recent study conducted by the University of Gothenburg, in collaboration with Mexican and American colleagues, sheds light on the challenges and possible solutions to this pressing issue.

Blue agave and bats in peril

The core of the issue lies in the intensive cultivation of blue agave, the primary ingredient in tequila. Blue agave is losing its genetic diversity due to a widespread asexual reproduction technique adopted by farmers. 

This technique, while effective for tequila production, prevents the plant from flowering, thereby reducing its genetic diversity and making it more susceptible to pests and climate change. Furthermore, this practice eliminates a crucial food source for bats, which rely on the nectar from agave flowers.

Genetic erosion 

“Genetic diversity in agricultural crops can act as a ‘natural insurance’ against, for example, pest infestations or changes in climate; it can also lead to agricultural improvements,” wrote the study authors. 

“Nonetheless, a focus on short-run productivity, a demand for product homogeneity, and other market considerations, have led to the genetic erosion of many crops, resulting in an increased risk of exposure to pathogens and fewer opportunities for crops to continuously adapt in response to changing climatic conditions.”

Bat-friendly program

One beacon of hope is the “bat-friendly program,” which encourages tequila producers to allow some blue agave plants to undergo sexual reproduction and flower. This initiative not only helps to maintain the genetic diversity of the agave but also supports the bats that feed on the agave nectar. 

Producers participating in this program can label their bottles with a special hologram, potentially commanding a higher price due to the environmental benefits.

Challenges and insights

Despite the merits of the bat-friendly program, its impact is limited as many agave farmers solely grow the crop for sale to distilleries, not producing tequila themselves. Recognizing this gap, the research team conducted a survey to understand what would motivate farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. 

The findings revealed that farmers would consider allowing a portion of their agave plants to flower if there were sufficient financial incentives, such as subsidies relative to the investment costs.

A sustainable path forward

The study highlights the need for collaboration among various stakeholders, including the tequila industry, consumers, policymakers, and conservation groups. 

By combining educational resources with financial incentives, there is a tangible opportunity to make sustainable practices more appealing to farmers. The goal is to strike a balance that benefits the environment, particularly the bats, while ensuring the long-term viability of the blue agave crop.

“Our research shows that, if adequately compensated, blue agave farmers are willing to participate in a program that aims to increase the genetic diversity of blue agave, while benefiting bat populations at the same time,” concluded the study authors. 

More about blue agave

Blue agave, scientifically known as Agave tequilana, is a succulent plant native to Jalisco, Mexico, and famous for being the primary ingredient in tequila. Characterized by its spiky leaves and a rosette shape, the blue agave thrives in sandy and rocky soils in hot and arid climates. It’s a slow-growing plant, usually taking between 8 to 12 years to mature.

Tequila production 

The core of the plant, known as the “piña,” is the crucial part used in tequila production. When the agave matures, its leaves are trimmed away, leaving the piña, which resembles a large pineapple. These piñas are then cooked to convert their starches into sugars, which are essential for fermentation.

Agave syrup 

Blue agave is not only vital for tequila but also for producing agave syrup, a popular natural sweetener. Unlike other agave species, blue agave is high in fructans, which are believed to offer various health benefits, including a lower glycemic index compared to common sweeteners.

Cultural significance 

In Mexican culture, agave has historical significance, being used by indigenous peoples for various purposes, including medicinal and for making fibers. Today, the blue agave landscape of Jalisco is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, highlighting its cultural importance.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Communications.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day