How Mexico’s Batman is fighting the Loss of Biodiversity in the Agave Industry

The agave plant is the foundation for Mexico’s most famous spirits; Tequila & Mezcal. But what do these two spirits have to do with Batman you say? Everything!
Rodrigo Medellin

How Mexico’s Batman is fighting the Loss of Biodiversity in the Agave Industry5 min read

The Agave needs help

But why does the Agave need help?

Distilleries rely on the juice of the agave for their spirits. The agave of choice for Tequila is the blue agave, also called the Agave tequilana. 

However, this is where quite a big problem occurs.

You see- once the plant flowers, it loses a lot of juice. Which is why the industry needs to harvest the juice before the flowering starts.

But at the same time, the flowering process is the agave’s only way of procreation. So how will it successfully procreate?

It’s a dilemma with one solution: Clones.

In order for the agave to be used for liquor, agave farmers rely on cloned plants. That means that all the commercially used blue agave comes from one source – they all share the exact same genetic code. 

Genius! But… this imposes a huge problem for biodiversity, as experts fear that the plant might lose its natural way of procreation.

Batman? Yes, batman. 

Meet Rodrigo Medellinm, our Batman.

Rodrigo Medellinm is a professor in Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and is one of the world’s leading experts on bats. Therefore he is commonly referred to as Batman in his home country Mexico.

According to him, bats can be the missing ingredient to biodiverse agave farming as they are natural pollinators. And Rodrigo is working on pilot projects that use the bats’ symbiotic relationship to the agave plant in order to pollinate it and increase its diversity. 

But… Why Bats?

Rodrigo is fascinated by bats. He believed they always had a bad image- especially now during this worldwide pandemic. 

But that’s a shame. Because bats are incredibly important to our ecosystems: as pest controls, but also as pollinators. This is why Rodrigo took it upon himself to fight these myths and show the true value of bats to the world. 

Rodrigo studied Bats for half of his professional life and is now working on an interesting project close to Mexico City. Here he’s documenting how the bat ecosystem serves as pest control in the rice fields.

Bats and Tequila: a match made in heaven

Indeed, bats and Agaves have lived in symbiosis (close interaction) for millions of years. Bats love Agave, because the plant evolved to produce exactly the right amount of sugar, around 70%, for food for the bats. 

So in 1994, I approached the Tequila industry to tell them about these partners that they have, but don’t recognize.

You see- Agaves accumulate sugar until sexual maturity. Then they grow these immense flowers and open the nectar to pollinators. 

However, humans found out that you can yield more sugar and more alcohol from the plants if you harvest them before maturity. This means that for about 150 years, the Tequila producers didn’t allow a single agave plant to flower. They considered it a wasted plant.

For about 150 years, the Tequila producers didn’t allow a single agave plant to flower. They considered that a wasted plant.

Rodrigo Medellin

Concequences of the ‘Wasted Plant’

More than 200 million plants of the blue agave completely lost their diversity. You only need one disease to hit the plants, and everything is lost. All of them will be sick. 

According to Rodrigo, this is why the Tequila industry needs to return its trust into nature. They need to invest into their biggest partner, the bats, to recover some of the diversity of the Agave. 

But Rodrigo found this to process of convincing the Tequila industry to be long and frustrating. 

The Benefits of Biodiversity

Bats feed on many different sources of nectar, so it wasn’t a problem for them that the Agave never flowers anymore due to the Tequila industry. 

However, it is a problem for the Tequila industry if they don’t recognise the benefits of biodiversity for their products.

The industry is heading for a disaster, and I wanted to make them aware of that high risk. Now, more and more companies are interested in the “bat-friendly” label.

Rodrigo Medellin

The unknown power of consumers

According to Rodrigo ‘the pandemic is child’s play compared to climate change, and we need to avoid that disaster to happen’. But this doesn’t mean that only tequila producers have to work on that, consumers are responsible too. 

Consumers hold a power that can steer the direction of the future of our world and its biodiversity. And you can harness that power by asking yousrelf certain questions. 

Do you go to the supermarket? Or to the local farmer’s market? What are the things you eat produced from? 

Most of what you eat or drink come from monocultures. We need to reframe the marketing of these things.

Rodrigo Medellin

Of course, this is easy to consider if you’re already aware of the problem. However, most consumers, are not really aware of what’s happening behind the scenes of the everyday products we consume. 

How do we get the message across?

Well. As Rodrigo puts it: we are preaching to the choir. 

I was featured in National Geographic, but I always avoided the big, glossy media outlets. Then I was featured in a glossy TV magazine that reached almost 1 million people, and suddenly the lady that sells lemons at the market comes to me and says: “You are the bat guy! And I know now that bats are not bad!” I almost kissed that woman!’’ This is the effect we should aim for. Let’s reach the ones that are not aware.

Rodrigo Medellin

And this is something that all of us can do. 

Let’s reach the ones that are not aware. 

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