Only bats can save tequila

In 1995, a few years after Medellín Legorreta warned the tequila industry, a plague destroyed the agave crops in Mexico; it was so catastrophic it was named the “AIDS of tequila.”

Only bats can save tequila
Bats feed from agave flowers and also cross pollinate - Photo: Rob Griffith/AP
English 28/02/2019 15:36 Mexico City Carmina de la Luz Ramírez Actualizada 17:58
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The ecologist was sure of what he had to say, he knocked on the door of the Tequila Governing Board (CRT) to send a strong and clear message: “You have to let the agaves flower and allow bats to pollinated them, otherwise, the tequila industry will be at risk and the bats could become extinct.” The businesspeople listened to what Rodrigo Medellín had to say, they thanked him and said their goodbyes.

It's been 27 years since that first meeting that went unnoticed took place, but now the story is different. Large and small tequila companies are the ones looking for Medellín Legorreta, also known as Mexico's Batman, to join his initiative titled “Bat Friendly.” The researcher from the UNAM's Ecology Institute, says that “in order for tequila to be friendly with bats, the farmer has to let 5% of the agaves in their plantations to flower in each hectare.”

Nevertheless, the tequila industry has operated the same way for centuries. According to journalist Rex Dalton, the production of the emblematic national beverage uses techniques inherited from indigenous communities that lived in western Mexico, as he explained in a 2015 article in Nature magazine. The farmers let the blue agave plants grow, whose scientific name is Agave tequilana, between six and eight years, since this is the period when the stem reaches its highest peak of sugar reserves. As part of its natural development, the blue agave will use those nutrients to grow its inflorescence, some sort of trunk located in the middle of the plant; but the tequila producers cut the plat before it reproduces and deprive it of its long leaves, leaving a large “pineapple” full of sugar, which is what they simmer and ferment in order to obtain the legendary liquor.

No flowers, no tequila

“If you were a blue agave, says Rodrigo Medellín, you would only have one chance to have sex in your life; that's how agaves are, they flower only once and then they die; you'd grow up and suddenly, when it's your time to engage in sexual activity, humans would harvest you and would turn you into tequila, stripping you of your only chance to sexually reproduce.”

In order to accelerate the production of tequila, the farmers have taken advantage of one of the qualities of these plants: their capacity to reproduce asexually. Therefore, the majority of the 45 millions of agaves reported by the tequila industry in 2017, are the clones of a few mother plants; that is, they come from practices such as the transplant of tillers.

The problem with this technique is that it has a double environmental impact. On one hand, it promotes the loss of genetic diversity among plants, which makes the crops more vulnerable against different threats: “These large monocultures, established to satiate the demand of tequila worldwide, are the best place for the spreading of (plant) diseases,” Rex Dalton explained.

On the other hand, by preventing agaves to flower, the farmers deprive the bats of their food, who by looking for nectar in the agave flowers cross-pollinate, increasing the genetic diversity of the resulting seeds: “The agaves and the bats have had a relationship for over 11 million years, of interaction, of interdependence; bats are the most important pollinators of agave [plants endemic from the Americas],” said Rodrigo Medellín.

In the 80s, the international demand for tequila increased exponentially and in less than 10 years, the area of production went from 16,000 to 50,000 hectares. It didn't take long for the consequences to become evident because in 1995, a few years after Medellín Legorreta warned the tequila industry, a plague destroyed agave crops in Mexico; it was so catastrophic it was named the “AIDS of tequila.

Also, climate change had an impact on vulnerable crops. For example, according to a study punished in the Journal of Arid Environments, where researchers from the UCLA, UdG, and the INIFAP participated, the temperature changes affected the tequila-producing states located in the southwest coast of the Pacific: a warmer weather and the increase of rain turned out to be devastating for the plants, which died after they were infected by the Erwinia carotovora bacteria and the Fusarium oxysporum fungus.

A mission for Batman

Despite being rejected by the Tequila Governing Body in 1993, Rodrigo Medellín kept on fighting. He decided he had to save bats, especially the Leptonycteris yerbabuenae species, also known as Sanborn's long-nosed bat or Mexican long-nosed bat, and tequila too and he formed an army of ecologists whose mission was to understand the implications human activities had over the chiropterans.

“With the first studies, we could prove that given the amount of nectar produced by the Agave tequilana flowers, the concentration of this nectar, the number of flowers that each agave inflorescence produces, you could feed between 100 and 90 bats per hectare every night [as long as the flowering of 5% of the plants was allowed],” he explains. It's worth mentioning that Medellín was awarded the Whitley Gold Award by Princess Anne of England in 2012, for his contribution to the preservation of nature.

Later, in 2013, Medellín received help from an ally. David Suro, a gastronomic ambassador from Jalisco, who founded Los Catrines restaurant and Tequila's Bar in Philadelphia. “David Suro was the missing piece in the team to be able to influence the tequila industry,” says the president of the Bat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.

Medellín and Suro became co-presidents of the governing board of the Bat Friendly program. “So we met with different tequila producers who were very committed, interested in securing the future of the plan, making sure that tequila is produced in a sustainable way and (that it is) of great quality and it was them who accepted the conditions we established,” he explained.

This way, the Mexican Batman and his team started new studies to prove that their hypotheses were correct. They noticed that the percentages worked well; the bats were feeding on the plants that were allowed to flower; there was a good seed production, and the genetic diversity of those seeds was larger than that of the mother plants. Once they had all the evidence, the team is about to finish with the pilot stage and it's ready to launch an open call in the incoming months: “Any producer that follows the guidelines that we will publish in our website will be able to join the program.”

The new era of tequila and mezcal

With this, the tequila industry is about to take a 180° turn: “The tequila producers, of mezcal, and even of pulque want to earn the Bat Friendly seal of approval (…) But the consumers are the ones who really have the power to make this a standard practice in the industry; if they decide that this is the right initiative, then we will be successful,” said the researcher.

Therefore, Medellín and Suro have embarked on a mission to recruit bartenders, mainly in the U.S. and Mexico. “We take them to the fields, for example, to the Don Mateo mezcal (fields) in Michoacán, so they get involved and join the project as partners (…) That means that in their bars, they're going to add a page to the menu where they explain what does being a Bat Friendly tequila consists in, and they will tell the client that for each drink they buy, the bar will donate a dollar for the conservation of agaves and tequila.”

Rodrigo Medellínhopes that in the next three years, even the big tequila brands will include this seal of approval in their products and that every time someone drinks tequila, they will thank Mexico and bats.

Translated by Gretel Morales

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