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Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story about the process of tequila production. The first part, published in our May 3 issue, details the history of the beverage while this second part covers the recent challenges and innovations by the industry in response to the so-called agave crisis that was spurred in-part by climate change.

Agave plants covered in snow after a storm hit Jalisco, Mexico in 2016. Courtesy: masdemx.com

In Mexico, as in the rest of the world, climate change is modifying agricultural frontiers. As a result, the conditions for harvesting agave (the plant used for the creation and manufacture of tequila) are subject to abrupt and unexpected environmental variations. An increase of frosting, snowfall, rainfall variation and overall temperature, are just some of the climatic challenges facing the agave agro-industry.

A clear example of these effects on the agro-industry occurred on March 9-10 of 2016, when a sudden snow fell on several thousand hectares of the two greatest agave cultivated areas in Jalisco (the Tequila and Los Altos regions), devastating a great number of plantations and freezing to death millions of agave plants of all ages. This unexpected loss of agave plants resulted in a critical scarcity of mature plants and a rise in the price of agave.

Today, the price for a kilogram of agave stem is about $22 Mexican pesos (about $1.12US) when two years ago it was about $3 Mexican pesos (about $0.15US). At this agave price, a number of smaller and medium-size tequila companies are having real trouble in keeping up the production. Inulin (a carbohydrate chain of variable size composed mainly of the sugar fructose) and agave fructose syrup companies face the same trouble. Because of the present situation, immature and smaller agave stems rather than the regular and mature plants are being harvested and processed by many in the tequila industry.

Scientists at the University of Chapingo have found that keeping in vitro (in a lab under artificial conditions) and in situ (in the field where it’s cultivated) germplasm banks of agave, can prevent the loss of elite plants and maintain the genetic diversity of the tequila, mezcal and pulque agaves.

Agave plantations have become some of the most valuable agricultural businesses in Mexico. Consequently, Agave growers and transporters have become frequent targets for robbery. In the first nine months of 2017, 193 agave tons were stolen according to local press, and in the state of Jalisco the robbery of agaves is now a criminal offense.  It is necessary then that government work with the agroindustry to find ways to protect production.

The role of national scientific and agrobiotechnology innovation

However, a new development for agave growers and the industries that produce tequila, mezcal, pulque, inulin, agave fructose syrup is the great potential for production of bioethanol, which is now becoming a real thing. The stem bagasse —a pulp-like bi-product of agave production — has been used for bio-gas by some industries for a few years now, and more recently a company began to use drones for monitoring agave plantations, obtaining soil maps, having better control of pests and diseases, and supervising the healthy growth of the crop. The use of in vitro protocols has been used for agave cloning and producing plants free from the severe systemic disease caused by the bacteria Erwinia, which is transmitted by the agave weevil or “Picudo de agave.”

Researchers at the Universidad Autonoma Chapingo in Mexico have worked for over 40 years with agaves, and through biotechnology protocols, have developed and applied cloning of diverse agave species of industrial importance, established a method for in vitro banks of germplasm and maintained it for 34 continuous years. This has allowed them to obtain very high productivity varieties of mezcal, which has been tested in commercial plantations by a leading tequila company. The mature stem of agave used for mezcal, Agave angustifolia H., known as “Espadín” reaches 150 kg, and takes seven years to mature on the field. The very high productivity mature blue agave stems reach 185 to 206 kg, and can be harvested every six years.

These very high productivity agaves will soon innovate the agriculture and agro-industries of these important agave crops. That’s good news for the agave growers, industries and the commerce of agave products. Besides tequila, the options are infinite in how it can be applied for the needs of the daily life. One of these applications is as an alternative and competitive crop for producing biofuel.

So, while the growing conditions in Mexico are changing as they are everywhere else, to say that there’s an “agave crisis” as some in the media have, is an exaggeration. Scientists are finding ways to adapt to climate change so that agave production can continue.

Dr. Remigio Madrigal-Lugo is one of the foremost authorities on the history and processes involved in the production of tequila. He is a professor and researcher at Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, Estado de México.