Sustainability of the traditional management of Agave genetic resources in the elaboration of mezcal and tequila spirits in western Mexico
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- Zizumbo-Villarreal, D., Vargas-Ponce, O., Rosales-Adame, J.J. et al. Genet Resour Crop Evol (2013) 60: 33. doi:10.1007/s10722-012-9812-z
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Over the last 30 years, cultivation of Agave tequilana Weber var blue for industrial production of tequila, has generated soil erosion, chemical pollution, displacement of traditional food crops and traditional Agave landraces used for preparing “mezcals” in the Appellation of Origin Tequila area. It is also associated with harmful cycles 8–10 years long of surplus-shortfall availability of raw material. Mezcal is the common traditional name given in Mexico to spirits like tequila, prepared with Agave tissue. We examined the traditional strategies of management of the Agave genetic resources for elaborating mezcal and tequila spirits by people of southern Jalisco, Mexico, analyzing the bases of their sustainable management, compared with management of the industrial tequila system. We found that mezcal spirits are prepared with different landraces of A. angustifolia Haw. and A. rhodacantha Trel. which are cultivated as living fences within the “milpa”, the traditional Mesoamerican multi-crop system. The whole system allows simultaneous production of agricultural, livestock and forest resources, permitting the adjustment of mezcal production to demand. Agave borders and terraces are laid out perpendicular to slopes to increase rainfall capture and filtration, and decrease soil erosion. The high species richness creates niche heterogeneity, substantially reducing pest and disease incidence. Genetic and morphological analyses indicated that traditional management and selection of A. angustifolia landraces have produced high genetic diversity (HBT = 0.438 ± 0.003) and structure (θB = 0.408) when compared with wild populations (HBT = 0.428 ± 0.015; θB = 0.212). Morphological differentiation is associated to artificial selection pressures. Differential precocity of Agave landraces and scaled planting favors continuous, year round spirit production. Growers directly market their mezcals, and a portion of the profits is reinvested in the parcel to ensure system continuity. The technological advantages of the traditional mezcal system could attenuate some challenges caused by the tequila industrial agriculture.