Biological diversity is crucial to a successful future for agave species. There are two different ways in which agave can reproduce. The first is through hijuelos, or clonal shoots, that result in plants that are genetic equivalent of the mother plant. An agave can produce multiple hijuelos each year. The second method is through a flowering stalk, or quiote. The agave used in the production of mezcal are semelparous, meaning they flower only once during their lifecycle and then they die. The agave uses all of the carbohydrates it has accumulated throughout its life to flower therefore making it unusable for the production of Mezcal. Although many species of agave can reproduce through both methods, several such as A.Cupreata, can only reproduce via the seeds that result from the quiote. The flowers of the agave plant open at night with the pollen being effective for only a few hours, therefore the primary pollinators of the agave plant are nectar-eating, or nectarivorous, bats.
When considering the importance of genetic diversity in the world of agave we need to look no further than the example of Tequila. For generations the Tequila industry has been solely utilizing hijuelos for reproduction so that every agave planted can be used in the production of Tequila. With each successive generation, the genetic diversity of the Tequilana Weber Azul has diminished leaving the plants more susceptible to disease and pestilence due to the lack of naturally occurring defenses. Infestations of pests such as the picudo bug have become more and more common resulting in agave shortages, spikes in the cost of agave and ultimately higher prices for the consumer. Additionally, the Tequila producing regions became essentially void of nectarivorous bats due to the lack of the bat’s primary food source.
Enter the Batman of Mexico, Dr Rodrigo Medellin. Dr. Medellin has partnered with the Tequila Interchange Project to study the relationship of agave farming practices and bat populations. Recognizing that there are mutual benefits to the biodiversity of the agave and the bat populations, Dr. Medellin and his students have begun a pilot program to recognize producers of agave distillates who are allowing 3-5% of their agave to reproduce through the quiote. The pilot program is in its nascent stages as Dr Medellin and his students are working to create the thorough scientific study necessary to create the guidelines for the bat friendly recognition. When the program officially launches it will initially be focused in the Tequila producing regions as that is where the most damage to biodiversity has taken place, however the goal is to eventually expand in years to come into the regions of the DO of Mezcal to encourage and recognize the continuation of the traditional farming practices of those regions.
The vistas from the palenques of Del Maguey have always been and will continue to be filled with towering quiotes. Through the traditional farming practices of their forefathers, the producers of Del Maguey are promoting a healthy future for both the agave and the Mezcal category. Biological diversity is key to confronting growing environmental concerns such as climate change. By respecting the full life cycle of the agave including the growth of the inflorescence our producers allow the plants to not only develop natural resistances, but also to naturally perpetuate the characteristics most suited to a changing environment. This diversification combined with other aspects of traditional farming such as the milpa and controlled burning, topics we will discuss in upcoming posts, reinforce the irreplaceable knowledge of Oaxaca’s rich indigenous agricultural inheritance.