Blue Agave – a sweet secret of the Olmec and the Aztec civilisations

How can Agave species become a viable solution to deforestation across the world’s tropics

Blue agave, A. tequilana sp.

The agave succulents are more associated with the production of mezcal beverages such as tequila through distillation of fermented agave juice rather than commercial applications of its fibres or sugar which, in recent years, has made its debut on the market. The Spanish were introduced to this method by Mexicans who fermented sacred drinks such as an intoxicating pulque – cooked maguey plant. These plants and their drinks are revered and are central to the indigenous cultures throughout the New World and Africa and as such are recognised by these cultures to be a gift of the sacred to humankind.   

The Aztecs regarded their sacred pulque, the fermented juice of the agave cactus, as the “milk of the Mother,” a divine gift from the goddess Mayahuel—a gift which must not be abused. —Mikal Aasved, 1988

The Tarahumara Indians of the northern Sierra Nevada cultivate the plant and make offerings of prayers to its spirit so that it can help humankind by sharing its intelligence with those who drink the sacred and healing beverage.  The pulque as well as tincture of leaves and root is used by the Indians to relieve arthritis, rheumatic pains and inflammation, and cramping in the stomach and intestines. The ethnobotanical literature describes how the entire plant was resourcefully stripped and processed to give many materials by making bruised leaves of agave plant into a paste for paper, their thorns into pins and needles, the thatch into roofs and cordage and the roots and nectar into nutritious food and medicine. The fresh root, rich in saponins, provided the Indians with soap and shampoo, too.  

Traditionally, the sweet sap is evaporated to make thick syrup which is used as a food. Owing its nutrition, agave nectar or syrup is a healthier substitute for maple and barley malt syrups and other, both natural and artificial options, including, stevia or sucralose to name a few. As it is produced by the plant in its sweet sap, it is enriched with minerals and vitamins. To add to that agave sugar is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar and this high sweetness is similar to fructose which has low glycemic index. However, agave syrup is comparable to high-fructose corn syrup in terms of calories.

A didgeriddo made of agave

Agave is a multiuse plant: the harder stalk can be used to make furniture and didgeridoos, and even surfboards and softer pith lends itself to making ropes.  Processing of agave into commercial goods produces a lot of waste, and it has been discovered that the agave bagasse has a great agronomic potential as it can be turned into substrate through composting. It is already used in Mexico as substrate for growing Agave seedlings. Good results have also been achieved through composting of animal slurry and waste products with agave bagasse.

These resilient succulents are plants native to deserts. Although they grow well in arid or semi-arid environments of Americas, their growth is markedly slow and thus they are also known as ‘century plants.’ They had also spread to hotter and drier regions of the Mediterranean and Africa where they utilise scarcity of water and nutrients with remarkable efficiency thanks to their incredible physiological (functioning), morphological (structural) and ecological (environmental interactions) adaptations.

Water-use efficiency and drought resistance are traits that agave plants owe to their physiology. They utilise what’s known as Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) – a major physiological condition which influences their water and carbon intake capacities and therefore, makes them plants of great ecological significance. The Cambridge University study on CAM plants concluded that “CAM is a major ecophysiological syndrome that has been repeatedly identified as providing high potential for sustainable production under climate change.”  Being heat and drought tolerant, agave plants are well adapted to stressful habitats. They have shallow roots and can capture water very easily from rain, condensation and dew and store it in their leaves. Having their own water tanks inside means they don’t need to compete with other crops for water and effectively can be grown with little or no irrigation. They produce numerous young plants, called pups from runners. The coated leaf surface prevents evaporation.  Agave can propagate by throwing numerous shoots however it is the bats that ensure the genetic diversity of the plants; bats co-evolved with the cactus for thousands of years. For this symbiosis to continue, the agave needs to be left to mature so that the bats can do their job. Also in the arid, fire-prone regions of California agave together with prickly pear cactus form a strong line of defence around neighbourhoods and orchards that fire cannot penetrate.

Agave species have also been studied in respect of their growth with elevated CO2; it has been shown that Agave vilmoriniana species grew better in the environment enriched with CO2, which has significance for all CAM plants that can be grown in the world in constant flux of steadily rising greenhouse gas levels. 

There are several Agave species – some more high-yielding than others – that produce sweet nectar in their sap, which is nowadays filtered and refined into sugar known as Agave nectar or Agave syrup. Agave americana (a sentry plant, maguey, or American aloe) introduced into southern Europe in the 16th century, the plant is also a source of pita fibre used to make various products. Agave tequilana (blue or tequila agave) produces a popular alcoholic drink with its own classification; there cannot be tequila without agave and no agave without bats.

Agave salmiana ssp. crassispina  (maguey manso ) (image on the right)  a sweet liquid named by the Spanish ‘aguamiel’ is collected in the pit formed after removing agave stalk.

Sweet destruction– how unsustainable palm sugar monocultures focus and drive the destruction of biologically rich primary forests in the tropics

The expansion of coconut sugar palm monocultures by cutting trees in primary forest increases carbon emissions, the major cause of global warming.

Today more and more of us are seeking healthy alternatives to all sorts of drink and food products and sugar is no exception. As conscious consumers our health concerns are valid and as such many, often unverified, health claims are eagerly made by those in sugar supply chain, from producers through to brokers and retailers.  

Palm sugar is derived from different palm trees and it can be harvested in an environmentally benign way as the tree is tapped for its sugar-rich sap.  Palm trees grow easily and their soil demand is low so anyone can convert their palm trees into sugar producing trees and this is where the drama unfolds like in a movie with a bad ending.  Palm sugar that has made in-road into markets across different countries is mainly obtained from coconut palm trees.  In a cycle of a coconut palm, a tree cannot produce coconuts and palm sugar at the same time so there is a significant ecologically negative trade-off many well-meaning consumers are not aware of.  

New plantations mean new roads and these fragment the forest and open up vast areas to poachers and other threats such as illegal logging and human habitation. In addition, both oil and sugar palm plantations also put orangutans at risk of conflict with humans, as the apes require vast areas of forest to roam freely, nest and feed.  In northern Sumatra conversion of forests and peat swamps with enormous scientific value and interest into palm oil and sugar plantations drives deforestation and destroys the area that supports many critically endangered species such as Sumatran orangutan at an alarming rate.  The habitat destruction forces orangutans, which live predominantly in the tree canopy, to get down on the ground in search of food and away from danger. These slow-moving animals often get stranded in vast clearings and become vulnerable to different threats including being caught in forest fires and burnt to death.  

The adverse ecological impacts of unsustainably harvested sugar are less known and even less advertised. If the environment is not mentioned then we can only assume that environmental standards are ignored and cannot be corroborated unless sugar products carry organic and a non-GMO or Fairtrade certifications that are visibly displayed on the product. And the environment question is a big one because it refers to and supports the health of the most vital ecosystems on Earth – the rainforests, tropical islands and coastal areas of the tropics where palm sugar crops are grown wholesale providing an income for the communities. More often than not this comes at a long-term environmental cost of land degradation, chemical pollution and habitat as well as species loss if an outdated model of production is employed. The transaction inadvertently becomes lose-lose for the community and nature. This negative feedback loop is complete as it impacts us all and it is directly linked to a growing demand for more ‘healthy’ sugar alternatives.  This problem is augmented by a lack of environmental transparency in labelling and generally poor ecological standards if it comes to food production as a whole.  On balance, various sugar options that are offered by retailers come from sustainable cultivations but these are usually smaller in size and have business model that is based on solid land use and labour ethos. 

A question needs to be asked, if the crops that have traditionally been used to give us fruit and oil are today grown to give us yet another commodity that endangers the longevity and safety of the ecosystem and community livelihood; can its production be justified on profit and health grounds alone?  A crop in question is palm sugar derived from coconut palm trees.  As it is easy for farmers to switch to harvest sugar sap, the lure of instant but short-term profits means that a tree life cycle is shortened to harvest as much sugar as possible. When the sap is syphoned from the flower bud, a tree cannot form a coconut and thus reach full maturity and produce very much valued coconuts. In consequence this drives higher prices of coconuts and their derivative products. Ironically, sugar that is not healthier than any other natural sugars available nowadays -as of yet there isn’t any peer reviewed literature that supports any health claims – has been replacing much healthier foodstuffs such as coconuts, coconut oil, vinegar and flour and health supplements with a long tradition of application worldwide. When viewed in an integrated way, growing palm trees in biologically diverse and therefore climate and pollution sensitive areas such as Southeast Asia where palm sugar is mostly harvested is a malpractice on two accounts: firstly there is an endemic palm, Arenga pinnata, a non-coconut bearing palm tree grown specifically for the purpose of harvesting sugar.  Monoculture coconut plantations replace native plants and biodiversity and deplete soils and thus increasing the use of chemical fertilizers to boost productivity.  Monocultures are also susceptible to disease and require costly pest management with chemical insecticides which are harming wildlife and polluting soil and water.  Secondly, we have an array of perfectly healthy sugar alternatives, that are certified and sourced sustainably such as sugar cane, or stevia, a herb sustainably harvested in Latin America that is said to be thirty times sweeter than table sugar and free of calories.  

The monoculture of sugar palm also creates economic imbalance in the Philippines where it displaces another traditional commodity such as palm alcohol and vinegar. So the onus here is on sugar industry brokers, suppliers, retailers and us consumers to check if sugar on our table is literally not ‘costing us the Earth,’ for us to demand higher standards from the retailers.

Do we need manifold varieties of sugar to satisfy our needs? The growing consumer demand means that vast tropical and subtropical areas are being locked into unchecked and highly destructive monocultures. Whilst short-termism of cash crops such as palm oil or sugar creates profits and jobs for the local population, in the long run the intensive single crop cultivation inevitably diminishes biodiversity by destroying key habitats and species, and further exacerbating climate change. In the meantime, the market moves on to yet another novel product that is beginning to make consumer waves. When the demand drops, the market bounces back but the communities tied to the monoculture product are the ones that lose out after they have largely degraded their own natural environment and reduced their chances of creating more sustainable future for themselves.

Arenga pinnata (sugar palm)

So how does blue Agave native to the driest regions in the world fit into the wettest regions as an all-round solution helping align the needs of people and planet simultaneously?

How can desert’s most resource-efficient plants generate new viable answers for saving our tropical forests from destruction by sugar palm monocultures.

The economics of one region needs to factor in the environment, the resource use and cost of the environmental and social improvements in another region. That way the Amazon, and other biodiverse tropical and subtropical forests making up our shared global heritage, can be saved by incomes generated in the deserts with agave crops.  In addition, bamboo, cork and hemp can not only produce ecologically viable industries and new markets for ecological goods, they have great land regeneration capacities that are presently underutilised.  We need to replace short-termism of unsustainable highly damaging economies of palm oil and sugar monocultures, cash crops that are not suited to the rainforest environments and re-discover and promote grasses and trees that have better adaptations and are also effective carbon sequesters in order to halt climate change.  Notwithstanding carbon capture, agave plants can do well in high CO2 rich environment and therefore are certainly the crop of the future. 

The equator is a home to many jobless and landless people so small permaculture-oriented, sustained-yield agroforestry provides means to local people who can then work with the land and derive sustenance from the forest by looking after it.  Today we know and policy makers agree that there is a need for identifying and developing agricultural alternatives to swidden agriculture that resorts often to fertilisers as most soil that cover the Amazon Basin are poor ferrasols or oxisols.  Given that rotation of land is limited, it is especially important that farming knowledge is updated to reflect the practices and biodiversity that was witnessed by the early European explorers in the Amazonia.  To bring this back, modern day farmers need to ditch inappropriate crops that bring losses to them and the forest in the long run. For example, cassava crop will rot with the slightest flooding when planted in the alluvial areas of the Amazon, called ‘varzeas’.  We know that these seasonally flooded ‘varzea’ forests and micropatches of highly fertile biomes within the Amazon give high productivity per acre and can sustain many families over long period if right crops such as rice, and fast-maturing corn and beans are planted.  

Farmers there know how to manage biodiversity through planting fast-growing nitrogen fixing trees and aquatic grasses and by not cutting the trees along the edges thus working with the natural laws.

There is a host of tree crops that have been successful in the tropics: rubber, cocoa, coffee and peach palm, trumpet tree Cecropia,  beechwood tree Gmelina arborea,  which can self-propagate in right conditions, and a couple of super trees that are said to do everything, sort of ‘miracle trees.’ These include lead tree -Acacia sp. Leucaena leucocephala and the empress tree, Paulownia fortunei; these trees are a great source of fuelwood and lumber and are perfect for intercropping and diverse permaculture forest gardens.In Costa Rica, the empress trees provide shade for coffee plants in polyculture ecosystems. The empress trees have an ability to regenerate the soil by shifting nutrients to the surface and themselves up to seven times after being cut down.

Like many other deciduous trees, they attract pollinating insects with their nectar-producing bloom. They have been chosen by the Rainforest Alliance for their ecological credentials of soil fertility, carbon capture and immunity to infestation due to having moist bark which is both repelling insects and fire.  They are planted by certified farmers in sustainable forests in the Americas. 

Highly productive, biodiversity sustaining forest gardens can be created with the funds achieved through this type of income that answers many problems simultaneously. Although this may sound counterintuitive, a sustainable cultivation of desert plant presents a viable solution for the tropics.  One that could go a long way to provide communities in Southeast Asia with incomes as a springboard for economic activity that is synonymous with conservation of ecologically irreplaceable habitats.  By incorporating nature affirming practices we increase rather than decrease the volume and diversity of forests that we have on our planet.  Our invaluable allies in the world increasingly affected by climate change – with rising CO2 levels and temperatures – need our engagement and the most up-to-date solution thinking to help them help sustain life on the planet.    

Bibliography

Harrod Buhner, Stephen. “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers”

Johannes, Laura (October 27, 2009). “Looking at Health Claims of Agave Nectar”. The Wall Street Journal. Archived

Jamie Males, Jamie and Griffiths, Howard (2017). “Stomatal Biology of CAM Plants.” Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EA, United Kingdom ORCID ID: 0000-0001-9899-8101 (J.M.). internet source: http://www.plantphysiol.org

Sherwood B. Idso, (1986) et alia. “Growth Response of a Succulent Plant, Agave vilmoriniana, to Elevated C02.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sugar-vs-artificial-sweeteners/

Image of didgeridoo from:  https://www.pamelamortensen.net/stories-from-the-earth

Image of A.salmiana from: https://inaturalist.nz/taxa/316371-Agave-salmiana-crassispina

Image of coconut sugar palm plantation from: https://www.ubudfoodfestival.com/indonesian-superfoods-coconut/

Image of brown coconut sugar by Edi Wibowo : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut_sugar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s