19 de noviembre del 2000
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Biotechnology Rescues Tequila

By Pilar Franco*

Scientists have given hope to the sick agave plant, which in Mexico is the raw material for tequila production, and has suffered the attack of pathogenic microbes for the last 15 years.

MEXICO CITY - The tequila industry, which saw an unexpected boom in sales over recent years, could avoid a potentially enormous crisis by utilizing biotechnology, apparently capable of eradicating serious infections in the agave plant, the raw material needed to make the popular alcoholic drink.

The various types of tequila, the dry-tasting beverage that is the pride of Mexico, have been winning over the palates of connoisseurs around the world, and include the unaged 'plato' or 'blanco' (silver), 'dorado' (gold), 'reposado' (rested - aged two months to a year) and añejo (aged, one to five years). Tequila production skyrocketed from 30 billion liters in 1995 to 130 billion liters in 1999.

But while the tequila market is growing by 18 to 20 percent annually, frost and lethal microorganisms led to a shortage in 1997 of agave, a plant that takes seven to ten years to mature.

The explosive increase in tequila consumption and the lack of planning to produce more agave have put the industry in a bind and forced a sharp rise in prices - the cost of the raw material jumped more than five-fold.

Now the tequila business is attempting to put together an integral strategy to reverse the sudden decline in sales: nine percent in the first half of 2000, according to official data.

Fifteen years after detecting a set of microorganisms in the variety known as Weber Blue Agave (ATWA), the only true variety for tequila production, studies identified the Erwina carotovora bacteria and the Fusarium oxysporum fungus as responsible for relentlessly attacking the plant.

Approximately 23 percent of the area planted with Blue Agave in Mexico (more than 60,000 hectares) is infected. The tequila producers have turned to the scientific community to come up with an alternative ''and have asked us to solve their problems,'' said Benjamín Rodríguez Garay, researcher at the Center for Technological Research and Consulting of Jalisco State.

Linked to the food and beverage sector, the institution has established plans to preserve the agave and holds contracts, ''the contents of which are confidential,'' with the tequila companies that will allow the sector to recover, though a price crisis for this and next year is unavoidable, Rodríguez Garay told Tierramérica.

''Massive in vitro cloning allows a clean crop developed in the laboratory as if it were in the field, except that it costs less and there are fewer risks of disease,'' he said.

Micro-reproduction, a technique used for fruit trees and ornamental plants, is new to the Blue Agave industry, but has allowed producers to obtain great quantities of plants that are free of infestation by pathogenic microorganisms.

Mercedes Monroy, a researcher at the National Polytechnic Institute, is in charge of studies that were able to develop a biotech process that makes Blue Agave plants resistant to the Erwina carotovora bacteria.

There are 72 tequila firms in Mexico, producing 500 different brands of the beverage, while another 100 are operated by bottling companies in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States, according to information from the Tequila Regulatory Council.

* The author is editor of Tierramérica.

Copyright © 2000 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

The raw material of tequila /Claudio Contreras
  The raw material of tequila / Claudio Contreras