Mexico’s famous saviour of bats, Rolex Award-winner Rodrigo A. Medellín, has formed an alliance with the US-based Tequila Interchange Project, which represents tequila enthusiasts, bartenders and researchers, in a joint effort to protect bats, tequila and agave plants.
As head of the Program for the Conservation of Bats of Mexico, Medellín has played a key role in the campaign to save the lesser long-nosed bat which pollinates the blue agave plant – the source of Mexico’s greatest export, tequila. Tequila production is now worth US$2 billion to Mexico annually, giving employment to 40,000 families.
Long-nosed bats feed on the nectar from the blue agave, whose flowers open at night to give off a sweet smell to attract the bats. As the bats feed on the nectar in the flowers, their fur is coated with pollen grains which, when the bats fly to another plant, assist in cross-fertilization of the plants and boost their genetic diversity. Both plant and bat benefit from this activity.
However, as Dr Medellín explains, for the past 80 or 100 years, Mexico’s many agave growers have been short-cutting the plant’s normal growth process, reproducing the agave using sprout “clones” at the base of the old plants. To make matters worse, they then began harvesting the agave when the plant flesh is at its sweetest, just before flowering.
With the flowers gone, the bats (deprived of a major source of nourishment) – and the cross-fertilization and natural plant reproduction – were gone too.
Twenty years ago Medellín warned the Mexican Tequila Regulatory Council that this practice posed a threat to agave plants. “I told them that the process of replanting and replanting and replanting was a dead end,” Medellín says. “They were losing all genetic diversity and with it all resistance to any disease that would come along.” But the council and agave farmers refused to listen.
Then, about eight years ago, a disease did in fact attack blue agaves. TMA (Tristeza y Muerte de Agave or “the wilting and death of agave”) affected about a quarter of blue agaves, costing producers hundreds of millions of dollars. (TMA still infects up to 40 per cent of agave plants.)
After the disease hit the plants, the farmers approached Medellín, asking what could be done. “Let the bats do their work and let them bring back genetic diversity,” he told them. “So the farmers left 5 per cent of the agave plants to bloom. In one hectare, leaving 5 per cent allows between 300 and 500 bats to feed. So, by leaving 5 per cent of agave in 100,000 hectares meant they were feeding hundreds of thousands of bats,” Medellín says.
Genetic diversity is now beginning to be restored to the agave plants. In an agreement recently struck with the US-based Tequila Interchange Project, Medellín and his colleagues will receive financial support to cover visits to agave farms to check that farmers are respecting the five per cent rule.
“At the moment, the agreement is just covering our expenses for the field visits, but funding is likely to be increased next year,” Medellín says.
The Tequila Interchange Project’s president, David Suro, wants to make the consumption of tequila environmentally friendly. Medellín praised Suro’s commitment to this cause which is known as the Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal Program.
Tequila is in fact one drink from the family of Mezcal drinks and, Medellín says, the whole family – and bats which fertilize them – will benefit from the campaign for environmentally sustainable drinks.
“The original name of tequila is mezcal de tequila, or mezcal from the town of Tequila. About 80 years ago, mezcal was the beverage of choice for construction workers,” Medellín explains. “It was basically bootleg, illegal and extremely cheap. It didn’t have a high profile in the upper crusts of Mexico, so some marketing genius decided to drop the name mezcal and just call it tequila. For all practical purposes, it’s just one more type of mezcal.”
With mezcal, says Medellín, “there is a lot more variety and diversity than spirits like whiskeys and single-malts. With mezcal, it all depends on the species, climate, soil, altitude and the master distiller.”
Mezcal, which is not produced in large quantities like tequila, is proving highly popular in the United States, drawing many sophisticated drinkers to its many variations.
It is produced with 12 types of agave in Mexico, typically in forests rather than fields. These agave also need bat pollination, and the harvesters, working by hand, leave far more plants behind than they harvest.
The mezcal industry is, according to Medellín, both sustainable and “naturally set up to be bat-friendly.”
Thanks to Rodrigo Medellín, the future of Mexico’s bats and agave – and of tequila and mezcal – is looking considerably brighter.Learn more about Rodrigo Medellín