New North Carolina State University research shows that tequila's surge in popularity over the past 15 years has been a boon for industry, but is triggering a significant hangover of social and environmental problems in the region of Mexico where the once-notorious liquor is produced.
Tequila is distilled from the blue agave plant and, according to Mexican law, can only be produced in an area encompassing the state of Jalisco and parts of four other Mexican states. This sort of distinction, known as a "geographical indication" (GI), conveys the geographical origin of a product, as well as its cultural and historical identity. Tequila and other GIs, such as Champagne and Napa Valley wine, are protected by a complicated set of organizations, agreements and laws worldwide that tie production to a specific place – making it impossible to outsource. But the new study, co-authored by NC State's Dr. Sarah Bowen, shows that the tequila GI is neither socially nor ecologically sustainable, and may serve as a lesson for other regions in Asia and the Americas that are currently trying to establish GIs.
The tequila industry has expanded considerably since the early 1990s, more than doubling its production between 1995 and 2005 alone. But a series of factors, including pest and disease infestations and the fact that it takes at least six years for a blue agave plant to progress from planting to harvest, have contributed to significant instabilities in the supply of agave. The supply problems, coupled with a surge in demand, have resulted in companies planting their own agave – rather than relying on independent farmers. This also means that agave is now being grown in areas that are within the tequila GI "zone," but that have not previously been used for agave cultivation. These changes have contributed to a loss of traditional farming practices, such as the practice of pruning agave plants to control for pests. Instead, there has been a significant increase in the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
"Many of these changes are marginalizing independent agave farmers and workers," Bowen says, "undermining the social foundation of the region that relies on the agave and tequila industries." Furthermore, the study shows that the norms that define tequila production do little to preserve traditional tequila production methods. As a result, the social and environmental resources in the Amatitán-Tequila Valley, where tequila production originated over 400 years ago, are under threat.
The study is significant because it provides a case study of how the lack of socioeconomic and ecological sustainability can create a vicious cycle where social concerns exacerbate environmental problems and vice versa. But it also provides some guidance for moving forward. For example, Bowen says, if GIs want to make real contributions to rural development and long-term environmental health, sustainable production practices should be incorporated into the legal framework of the GI itself.
The study, "Geographical indications, terroir, and socioeconomic and ecological sustainability: The case of tequila," was published in the January issue of the Journal of Rural Studies. The study was co-authored by Bowen, an assistant professor of sociology at NC State, and Dr. Ana Valenzuela Zapata, of the University of Guadalajara.
Note to editors: The study abstract follows.
"Geographical indications, terroir, and socioeconomic and ecological sustainability: The case of tequila"
Authors: Sarah Bowen, North Carolina State University; Ana Valenzuela Zapata, University of Guadalajara-CUCIENEGA
Published: January 2009, in Journal of Rural Studies
Abstract: In this paper, we use the case of tequila to examine the potential for geographical indications (GIs) to contribute to socioeconomic and environmental sustainability. GIs are place-based names (e.g., Champagne, Roquefort) that convey the geographical origin, as well as the cultural and historical identity, of agricultural products. The GI for tequila was established by the Mexican government in 1974, making it the oldest GI, and one of the best-recognized, outside of Europe. Here, we examine the social, economic, and ecological impacts that the agave–tequila industry has had on one community in tequila's region of origin, the town of Amatitán. We show that persistent cycles of surplus and shortage of agave and changing production relations in the agave–tequila industry have led to: (1) economic insecurity among farm households;(2) increased use of chemical inputs, at the expense of more labor-intensive cultivation practices; and (3) overall declines in fertilizer application, especially during periods in which there is a surplus of agave. We argue that the negative effects of the agave–tequila industry on the local economy and environment are due to the failure of the GI for tequila to value the ways in which the terroir of tequila's region of origin have contributed to its specific properties. We conclude by using this case to discuss more generally the relationship between the protection of place-based products (known collectively as geographical indications) and social and environmental sustainability.