The Tequila Industry: A Model for Conservation?

For centuries, farmers have been roasting, fermenting and distilling the agave plant's roasted heart to brew what many consider to be the national drink of Mexico: tequila. Yet new research shows that the liquor's recent growth in popularity is harming communities and the environment.

The Mexican government mandated that the liquor could only be called tequila if it came from the Amatitan-Tequila Valley, where agave has been grown and made into the alcohol for 400 years. When demand for the product rose in the early '90s, companies stopped relying on local farmers who knew how to control pest infestations and prevent disease, and began planting agave themselves within the designated area. Traditional farming methods were replaced with pesticides and chemicals, making the independent farmers insignificant, and hurting the local economy and natural habitat.

The Amatitan-Tequila Valley is considered a geographical indication (GI), meaning that the culture, history, and environment there combine to make the only liquor that can be called tequila, like Roquefort's cheese and Champagne's bubbly. The European Union, the United States, and a growing number of countries argue that some agricultural products can't be replicated if they come from other regions of the world, so the production of those goods can't be outsourced. In many locales, this makes the product more valuable and gives farmers, vintners, or brewers incentive to preserve the environment.

"There's an opportunity to protect the environment because there's a belief that it has a direct effect on the quality of the products," says North Carolina State University sociologist Sarah Bowen, the lead author of a recent study published in the Journal of Rural Studies. "In the case of Mexico, I don't think that's really happening."

Mexico's tequila region is the oldest and most economically successful GI outside of Europe. After an agave shortage that put smaller producers out of business, the Mexican government established a tequila regulatory council that focused on guaranteeing the quality of the liquor. As they expanded the market, production doubled between 1995 and 2005. Now, the high-end sector is growing the fastest, but it seems that the industry is unsustainable.

"They need sustainability in terms of the environment and equitability in terms of incorporating all the actors," says Bowen.

Other regions like Colombia and Chile, two countries that have recently passed legislation designating GIs, look to Mexico's model because of the tequila industry's profitability. In 2007, Colombian coffee was the first product outside of Europe to be given GI status in the European Union. Countries looking to achieve the distinction should improve upon Mexico's example, says Bowen, and ensure that their product has positive environmental effects. "Geographical indications are new types of [environmental] protection in many countries," she says. "It's important to think about how they're being implemented and to make sustainability and rural development part of the objective."

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