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D.O. or D.O.n’t? Part 2: Sustainability in Mezcal with Dr. Ignacio Torres García

This post is the second in an ongoing series focusing on Mexico’s Denominations of Origin. The first is here.

Denominations of Origin (DOs) are regimes intended to identify and grant special protections to culturally-specific regional products and the people that make them. In Mexico, DOs must have a Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM – a set of regulations) and a regulatory body established by the federal government. A growing body of academic work indicates that the DOs, NOMs, and regulatory bodies of Mexico are failing to protect the people, cultures, and natural resources of these regions. Critics of Mexico’s DOs argue that they function more as standard business or trade associations – emphasizing volume, market share, and gross profits over the protection of the well-being of traditional producers and their social and natural environments.

The non-profit organization MILPA (Manejo Integral y Local de Productos Agroforestales) is at the forefront of these critiques, which are complemented by MILPA’s support of traditional community projects as an alternative to profit-focused, extractive models of resource management.

Online MILPA panel, July 2020

MILPA’s members boast a wealth of knowledge about agaves and mezcal, and are indefatigable in their efforts to defend and strengthen sustainable livelihoods in rural Mexico.

On July 18, MILPA hosted a highly recommended online panel featuring biologists, anthropologists and ecologists. These experts addressed issues of biodiversity in mezcal, threats to bio-cultural patrimony, and ended on a positive note, highlighting mezcal-related community projects throughout Mexico.

MILPA also forms part of the Red Nacional de Manejadores de Maguey Forestal, a nationwide network of organizations, families, and individual agave caretakers that includes mezcaleros and pulqueros. After the Network’s November, 2019 national meeting in Oaxaca, they released two provocative documents (a manifesto and a declaration), presented here in their English translations.

The documents taken together are a strong indictment of the current reality in mezcal. In order to provide some additional context, I interviewed MILPA’s Dr. Ignacio “Nacho” Torres García. Nacho is a biologist specializing in Mexico’s native biodiversity and agroforestry management. What follows is an edited English-language translation of that email interview from January, 2020.

CS: The documents mention looting and robbery of maguey. How does that work and where is it happening? Who is stealing from whom?

NT: It is happening practically everywhere. Nearly all of the participants at the [national] meeting testified about such experiences. Seeds are stolen, mature plants are stolen, newly planted hijuelos are stolen. This is done by the so-called “coyotes” who are responsible for getting plants to sell new producers.

CS: The documents also mention the movement of magueyes to areas where they do not occur naturally. What are some examples and who is responsible?

NT: For example, taking Agave cupreata to Puebla. The responsible parties are producers or investors who want to recoup their investment with highly prized agaves, those within the CRM who allow it, and the people who do it without considering that they are spreading pests and that the plants may be stolen.

CS: I like that the documents emphasize socio-cultural impacts so much. Can you elaborate a little on this? What are some of the costs to the maguey- and mezcal-producing communities at the present time?

NT: The sociocultural effect of specializing in and intensifying the production of mezcal is that farmlands and managed forests are now considered only for the production of maguey for mezcal, and the sale of both in order to have money to buy basic necessities. When in fact in these areas, they already have everything, meaning useful biodiversity. This intensification changes ways of relating to tradition: mezcal is produced for sale, historical tastes are changed in terms of materials in production, percentage alcohol, etc. Mezcal ceases to be a cultural product and becomes a commercial product.

CS: The documents mention the use of plants other than agaves for the production of “mezcal.” Why is this alarming?

NT: The case of Furcreae longaeva is particularly alarming. It is an agavaceae that has never been used to make distillates and it was in danger of extinction, even before the mezcal boom. There’s also the case of wild agave species that have never been used for mezcal. [It’s done] simply to experiment with rare and wild species, as in the case of Agave montana. This is very alarming since they are extracting thousands of tons without any management plan and surely impacting the wild populations, putting them at risk. It would be something like consuming the meat of a newly discovered species of jaguar. Just as an example of how serious it is.

CS: Poor management of firewood is also mentioned – can you elaborate? What do you think of the use of gas to heat stills as a sustainability measure?

NT: Many tons of wild timber are used from surrounding areas, with very little management plans, most have none at all. There is a lot of talk about agaves but nothing about firewood and without it there is no mezcal either, with its presence in cooking and flavors. Agroforestry management must include reforestation plans for agaves, timber species, and many other useful species. It seems to me that a more in-depth study would have to be done to know whether gas or wood has a heavier environmental cost. I do not have enough information to give you an opinion on that.

CS: Non-ethical bottlers are mentioned, who take advantage of resources and cultures without giving credit to and sharing profit with producers. Is it possible to be a good bottler? If so, what do the good ones look like?

NT: It’s like being a good handicraft merchant. Many bottlers don’t get involved in other aspects of production, like where do the plants come from? Are they conserved? Are we producing more than the ecosystem’s capacity? Sometimes they demand large volumes from producers to get rich from the culture, as in many cases of certified mezcal. And there are many more examples of bad practices. 

The good guys should get involved and be part of a virtuous and not vicious cycle.

CS: Given the threats to different species of maguey mentioned above, should we consumers avoid mezcal made from wild agave entirely?

NT: It would be important to make sure that the wild maguey for this mezcal has a management plan and that the populations are in balance. If not, I would recommend making an ethical environmental judgment and doing the right thing, consumers as well as marketers. It is everyone’s responsibility to preserve this biological wealth.

CS: It seems to me that nowadays almost all brands use the same buzz words (“sustainability,” “reforestation,” etc.). How can we educate ourselves about which ones are really “walking the walk”?

NT: These words are now part of the sloganeering of many brands. So, only by getting to know and deepening your knowledge of good practices and making comparisons can you get beyond the simple use of buzz words. There are other indicators of sustainability, such as self-management, planning, self-sufficiency, and independence from external suppliers.

CS: As foreign consumers, are there ways to support magueyeros other than through mezcal consumption?

NT: Educating yourselves more about the whole cycle (beyond just the question of mezcal production and organoleptic characteristics): sociocultural aspects, the producers’ way of life, and especially asymmetries [of power] and the pressure that the CRM and DOM are exerting that destroy traditions and benefit opportunistic investors.

CS: Most of the people reading this will be foreigner aficionados who want to do the right thing, the ethical thing, but don’t know how. A frequent question is “If everyone knows that there are such bad practices, why don’t they name names, so we can punish the bad guys in the market?” Any comment on that? Are there “bad guys” that can be named? How about the good guys – who deserves the support of the conscious consumer?

NT: There are many names, there are many very obvious ones, there are many that are very close to the CRM, there are many who are only maquilas [contract brands], there are many opportunists. And there are few examples of brands that stand out because of their tradition and perseverance and good environmental management.

[NB: The CRM declined to comment on this interview.]

Later this month, MILPA will be presenting their formal opposition to the DO for raicilla (as currently composed). Check with them directly for details.

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