Endangered Agave: Can Mezcal Avoid Tequila’s Destructive Legacy?

As drinkers around the world down Mexico’s smoky, agave-based spirit, producers in Puebla seek a balance between meeting demand and protecting wild agave.

Read this story in

Publication Date

Endangered Agave: Can Mezcal Avoid Tequila’s Destructive Legacy?

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

Fabiola Torres Monfil, master mezcalera and co-founder of Zinacantán Mezcal, tours and checks papalometl agave on her mother's land, where she’s helping to regenerate the agave-associated ecosystem, in the municipality of San Diego la Mesa Tochimiltzingo, Puebla.

Publication Date

SAN DIEGO LA MESA TOCHIMILTZINGO, MEXICO — When visitors arrive at Fabiola Torres Monfil and Diana Pinzón Moncada’s mezcal factory, they usually start with one question: Where are the agaves?

Instead of neat rows of agave, which is fermented to make mezcal, they are greeted by a parcel of land replete with vegetation. It doesn’t look like cropland, but among the trees, grasses and shrubs grow papalometl (also known as tobalá) and espadín agave, two of the most popular varieties for mezcal.

“Modes of consumption come and go, but our land is what we must preserve,” Pinzón says. She and Torres lead Zinacantán Mezcal, a mezcal production company that’s working to better manage agave plants to prevent the extinction of wild specimens due to exploitation. Other producers in the region, as well as academics, are exploring ways to conserve the plant species and ecosystem as the popularity of mezcal grows and the local government promotes production.

In 2022, Puebla, the central Mexican state where Zinacantán is located, ranked second in the nation for mezcal production, churning out 487,293 liters (128,729 gallons) per year and accounting for 3.44% of the country’s total. And it has ambitious plans to increase those numbers. In 2023, the state government launched Proyecto Estratégico de Impulso al Agave Mezcalero Poblano, a plan to support participants in the agave-mezcal value chain and produce 1 million liters (264,172 gallons) per year, starting this year, to keep up with the growing national and international demand.

“Modes of consumption come and go, but our land is what we must preserve.”

According to Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal, a private body responsible for certifying and authenticating mezcal, 14.1 million liters (3.7 million gallons) of mezcal were produced nationwide in 2022, an increase of 74.8% from 2021. Production in Mexico has trended upward since 2014, based on the body’s figures.

This means producers need more and more agave, leading to the exploitation of Puebla’s wild endemic agave populations, according to an analysis of mezcal production published by researchers at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla. The result, it concludes, is an increased risk of extinction for some wild agave species and an unbalanced ecosystem.

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

As mezcal’s popularity grows, regional producers and academics are exploring ways to better manage agave populations.

In some parts of the state, agave populations have already been lost, says Ignacio Torres García, a biologist who has worked on agave-focused community projects for 25 years.

Mezcal does not want to follow in tequila’s footsteps

To meet the demand for mezcal without exploiting the agave, some producers in Puebla have devised alternatives to commercial agave farming, whose disadvantages have surfaced in states like Jalisco and Oaxaca.

Jalisco is the main producer of tequila, the most famous agave-distilled product, while the largest mezcal producer is Oaxaca. In 2022, the state produced 12.9 million liters (3.4 million gallons) of the beverage, 91.31% of the national total. In both states, deforestation and intensive single-crop farming bolstered by agrochemicals are jeopardizing the balance that all of the ecosystem’s inhabitants — human, plant and animal — depend on.

In the 1950s, tequila producers in Jalisco introduced “technical improvements” to better meet demand, according to Consejo Regulador del Tequila, the private body responsible for inspecting and certifying tequila quality. When the changes were implemented, the traditional agroforestry processes that local producers were using, which maintained the area’s ecological balance, were replaced by monoculture-based models, says Gustavo Mora, who worked as an adviser on agave farming in the Tequila region in the 1970s and 1980s.

expand image
expand slideshow

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

Fabiola Torres Monfil, master mezcalera and co-founder of Zinacantán Mezcal, pours a glass of mezcal at her mezcalería, in the municipality of San Diego la Mesa Tochimiltzingo, Puebla.

“The history of tequila is very illustrative,” says Alfonso Valiente Banuet, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology. “First, over 100,000 hectares [247,000 acres] of tropical dry forest were destroyed to make way for single-crop farming. And when the native plants were wiped out, the wild Agave tequilana was wiped out. [This] is where the producers were living, so then many of them went under.”

Daniel Hurtado Torres, a founding partner of Vivero San Diego, is one of the producers in Puebla who has thrown his hat in the ring to avoid an environmental crisis while also satisfying demand by producing mezcal organically.

“To respond to the demand for mezcal papalometl in the market,” he says, “it is necessary to have a sufficient amount of mature agave for distillation.” This agave is the fourth-most in demand for mezcal production by certified brands.

expand image
expand slideshow

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

Daniel Hurtado Torres, a partner at Vivero San Diego, poses for a portrait in the nursery, where espadín, espadilla, cupreata and papalometl agave plants germinate and grow, in the municipality of San Diego la Mesa Tochimiltzingo, Puebla.

Hurtado and his partners are prioritizing the reforestation of papalometl agave, growing it from seed to ensure young plants are not used in the mezcal production process. This organic management technique allows agave plants to mature, which allows producers to reap the full benefit of their sugar content and preserve specimens by letting the plants flower and collecting their seeds.

“We are still working to keep it natural, pure, to keep it artisanal,” Hurtado says.

While he recognizes that there is pressure to safeguard the raw material, he believes their efforts make it possible to maintain the wild agaves and their ecosystem, and at the same time, to support the mezcal industry in Puebla.

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico

Mezcal producers like Guadalupe García Reyes, left, and Benjamín Lezama García, partners at Vivero San Diego, use organic management techniques that allow agaves to mature.

“We have the opportunity to give the agave time, so it can grow,” he says.

Torres and Pinzón are not sitting on the sideline either. To restore the ecosystem, they rent land that is degraded and depleted from single-crop farming and excessive agrochemical use.

“Mezcal is a product that is 100% natural resources. It’s water, it’s wood, it’s agave. It is the human being that transforms these elements,” Pinzón says. For her and Torres, the goal is not solely to reverse the damage to the ecosystem. “It is to restore the memory tied to this land.”

Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.