Will the climate crisis also lead to tequila? | Climate

The climate crisis appears to be causing damage to the agave plant, the main ingredient in tequila produced in Mexico. The changes of climate and the change in the behavior of the bat, the main pollinator of this plant, are having an impact on its production, at the same time that the demand – mainly in Europe – for the spirit drink of tequila is growing. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the cocuy business, which is made from another variety of the same plant, is also enjoying unexpected success.

There was no reason to think that wine and spirits were going to come out of the climate crisis unscathed. This sector will also not be spared in the global water scarcity that affects countless cultures and threatens the traditional food chain, forcing us to make an effort to adapt. AND mitigation too, of course. However, the case of the agave that feeds the production of the world famous tequila in Mexico would not, from the outset, be one of the priorities of the attention dedicated to the effects of the climate crisis, not least because this plant is adapted to live in the heat and grow in dry soils.

Despite this, a CNN report once again reminds us of the threats hanging over tequila, after a study in 2019 concluded that the climate crisis, associated with overgrazing by livestock and other human activities, could disrupt distribution and cultivation. from agave. CNN quotes scientist Omanjana Goswami, an expert in the field of food and the environment at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who leaves the alert by saying that the life cycle of the agave “is too fragile to withstand the great climatic blow that the climate crisis is generating”. – from extreme drought to brutal storms like the one California just experienced.”

A farmer clears the surrounding area of ​​blue agave before harvesting it in Tepatitlan, Jalisco, Mexico
Carlos Jasso/REUTERS

“Agave is a desert plant, so of course anything that moves towards that desert climate is going to help this crop thrive,” Goswami told CNN. “But unfortunately, climate effects are not linear. That doesn’t mean that as hot temperatures they will remain consistent. With the extremes coupled with unpredictability, it’s very difficult to predict where this will all end up in the future.”

In addition to the unpredictability of the climate that will be able to defeat the most resistant plants, the agave has another problem that can prevent it from thriving. According to experts quoted by CNN, pollinators of this plant are also disturbed by changes in climate and, more precisely, by rising temperatures. Warming temperatures have become a growing concern for the Mexican long-nosed bat – a species key to tequila, warns the news.

“We wouldn’t have tequila if we didn’t have bats, because that’s the only thing that pollinates the agave plant that produces tequila,” adds Ron Magill, director of communications and wildlife expert at Zoo Miami, to CNN. To be considered and labeled as tequila, the drink must be made with agave from Mexico, recalls the same article underlining that drinks made with the same plant in other regions must be called “agave brandy”.

Hearts (or heads) of blue agave on top of a truck on the outskirts of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Thus, with the increase in demand for this spirit drink and the obstacles posed by the climate, it is necessary to find new ways to ensure market supply. Either with the original tequila, from Mexico, or with brandies produced in other places like California. “Some researchers like Ron Runnebaum, assistant professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, are looking to explore genetic diversity further to see which variants beyond the blue agave can adapt and survive in a changing climate to avoid diversity loss. ,” says CNN.

Craig Reynolds, an agave grower and founding director of the Agave Council of California, says he sees agave farming as an economic opportunity in a hotter, drier future. But for that it is necessary to investigate and invest in the adaptation of this plant. “There are going to be some failures and setbacks here and there,” admits Craig Reynolds, adding: “I’m not hopeful that the climate will change. I’m only realistic in that we need to do everything we can to slow down climate change, but we also have of simultaneously having strategies to adapt to the climate change that is happening – and agave is just part of the adaptation strategy”.

In Venezuela, the case of the cocuy

Cocuy is a brandy distilled from fermented Agave juices, produced by hand in the Venezuelan regions of Falcón and Lara. With a taste similar to other agave-based drinks such as tequila and mezcal, it is known as the tequila of Venezuela.

With Mexican tequila facing some difficulties that cause the price to rise, cocuy will be gaining ground in the market, managing to respond to the growing demand, especially in the European market. Venezuela has been hit by high inflation, and many companies are eager to increase exports despite the obstacles, confirms Reuters.

Cocuy producers in Venezuela, however, say limited wild harvests and the labor-intensive production process of making the drink without additives – the prized version of the liqueur – are complicating efforts to increase production. Still, this Venezuelan version of tequila is racking up awards.

Different brands from different producers have won medals in competitions, ranging from bronze at the 2022 London Spirits Competition, two silver medals at the 2021 New York International Spirits Competition, two gold medals at the IAPA Awards in the United States and at the China Wine and Spirits Contest in 2022.

The cocuy promotion association of the Lara region is analyzing “what niche in the international market it can reach, because the quantity and volume of cocuy production is low”, said spokesman Cristobal Sanchez. “Between several producers we can fill a 20,000 liter container once a year”. That’s why we can’t “think about selling worldwide, because it’s an exotic, special product and very difficult to make,” Sanchez told Reuters.

The numbers are far from the production and sales of another famous Venezuelan drink: rum, whose production reaches 8 million liters annually, according to its promotion association. Three of the biggest producers of Venezuelan rum sold more than 20 million dollars of the drink during 10 months of 2022 to the North American and European markets, according to Reuters.

A liter of 100% cocuy can be sold for between USD 18 (EUR 17) and USD 60 (EUR 56), while its production costs an average of USD 12 (EUR 11) without marketing costs. Cane spirits like rum are generally sold for less – between three dollars (approximately three euros) and five dollars (almost five euros) per litre.

“To be able to export we need money to expand production and human capital, in order to have stock enough to offer to the international market”, said Maria Eugenia Duran, managing director of the Magno brand. “There is also a need for research funding for crop development”, she said, because it usually takes eight to 10 years for a cocuy plant mature.

Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/ GettyImages

Guillermo Camacaro, a producer in Lara, says he managed to harvest the plant after a period of five years of planting his crop in a nursery and then transplanting it. Securing new cocuy plantations, which would ensure the preservation of wild agave, is key to mass production, he told Reuters.

“Most of us “don’t have enough land to do massive cocuy plantations,” he said. “That “is vital to talk about exports.” Of the 365 cocuy producers in Lara, whose arid and semi-arid climate makes agave abundant, only 70 make the drink with 100% agave.

The difficult production process begins by cutting the leaves of the plant to reach its “head”, said producer Siquisique Nelson de la Rosa. The heads are then cooked for seven days in ovens or in trenches dug into the ground, until caramelized. Its juice is fermented for another six days. “We are “in the presence of an exclusive product”, notes producer Hector Pineda. And he concludes: “It deserves recognition for the cost of manufacturing a liter of cocuy”.

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