As an agricultural product, mezcal is bound by the limits of the agave plant’s growth cycle and availability. With its deep-rooted traditions and increasing popularity, mezcal provides a unique look into the impact of industry demands and intentional interventions on the survival of entire plant species and, by extension, global supply chains.
An Agave Primer
Agave plants are succulents in the Asparagaceae family (yes, you read that right: they’re a distant relative of asparagus). Known for their thick leaves that are typically arranged in a rosette pattern, agave are native to hot and arid areas of Mexico and the southern U.S. and can also be found throughout the world for their ornamental and commercial value.
Agave has deep roots in Mexican culture with the plant being used as far back as 9000 BC by Indigenous people for food, fiber, medicine, religious practices, and a fermented drink called pulque. Today there are approximately 200 species of agave plants in existence—166 of which are found in Mexico—and over 30 of those species are used in the production of tequila, mezcal, and raicilla.
Lessons from Tequila
As tequila grew in popularity across the world, large corporations turned to overharvesting wild blue agave—the only species of agave from which tequila can be produced—to meet the demand. Mexican farmers and communities watched as the species quickly became depleted and in response to the drastic decline, corporations resorted to cloning blue agave on their own farms. While the cloning process increased speed and efficiency, it rendered the plants sterile, making it impossible for them to reproduce naturally. It also removed many local farmers and producers from the process altogether.
With this history in mind, farmers and ecologists have sounded the alarm on the dangers of overharvesting wild agave as the cycle begins to repeat itself with other species. A recent study by researchers at University of the Americas Puebla and National Autonomous University of Mexico lists several species at risk of extinction due to usage, distribution throughout Mexico, reproduction methods, and status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
An Impending Domino Effect
The rapid decrease and impending extinction of wild agave would cause a domino effect on the ecosystem. Agave plants provide food and shelter for countless animals including insects, hummingbirds, and small mammals. Their structural design—specifically their intricate root systems, rosette-shaped leaves, and water storage capacity—helps to stabilize the soil around them and prevent erosion from wind and rainwater. Their growth in arid and semi-arid areas reduces agricultural pressures on other lands. Removing agave from the equation either through outright overharvesting or even premature harvesting eliminates a critical link in the ecosystem.
The loss of agave plants also has cultural impacts on communities and economic impacts on the supply chain, threatening the livelihood and economic potential of countless people who depend on agave for many of the same resources they did thousands of years ago. With fewer agave species growing naturally and even fewer being able to complete their full growth cycles, there is a resulting decrease in the production of syrups, saps, and spirits, jobs for people tied to these production cycles, exports of said products, and tourism. Each of these is cause for concern.
What Can Be Done
At MGx we know that without sustainably addressing the production of agave spirits, there will be no agave spirits in the future. That’s why we’re partnering with supply chain and technology experts to increase efficiency and transparency around how and where agave is sourced. It’s why we’re working with producers to learn how they have been producing agave spirits and other goods for millennia because mezcal production itself is not new—it’s simply being experienced by a new audience. We’re exploring how we can use modern technology and logistical best practices to enhance the generational knowledge they already have.
As we look to connect frontier markets with the digital economy, it’s critical that the communities at the center of the industry play a central role in conversations about its present and future. After all, while software and spreadsheets can greatly accelerate development and profits, they are not substitutes for good policies and intentional implementation.
The Role of Consumers
Spending power cannot be underestimated. As consumers become more aware of the environmental and societal impact of their purchases, they’re calling for more transparency, increased sustainability, and more ethical business practices. Even more than looking for specific labels and certifications on the items you purchase, have conversations as the purchase is made.
When it comes to mezcal, just as it is common practice to discuss wine notes and vineyards of origin, begin asking about the origins of the spirit in front of you. José Luis “Shonga” Sánchez López, one of the producers on the MGx platform, speaks to the importance of truly knowing what goes into the sips you take. “[W]hen you don’t know anything about mezcal, you think it’s easy, but it takes several years after the agave is sown until we harvest it.”
Shonga grew up running through his father’s palenque and was exposed to mezcal production at a young age. Today, as he pursues a balance between traditional elements of the spirit with the demands of a growing audience, he hopes that as more people become aware of mezcal, they learn about and appreciate the years of hard work and sacrifice that goes into its production.
“Even if we harvest an agave after 8 years, it can take more than just that—the process to make the mezcal is also hard and demanding so it’s a lot of time and effort to just drink it without appreciating it.”
Here are some questions to consider for your next purchase:
- What kind of agave is being used? Is it one that is at risk for extinction?
- Where is the agave sourced from?
- Who is behind the brand? Is it a notable public figure or is there an intentional, authentic connection to the mezcaleros behind the production process and recipe?
Once you begin getting to the roots, you’re able to truly enjoy mezcal the way it was intended.
Enjoy what you read here? Sign up for our monthly newsletter where we take you to the heart of MGx and the communities we serve. Throughout the month of April we’re highlighting Shonga and other producers on our platform who serve as stewards of artisanal mezcal and the booming agave spirits industry. To learn more and sign up, visit www.magueyexchange.com.