For the last 20 years, scientist Rodrigo Medellin has worked to protect a particular endangered species of bat that just might help protect something else in danger – your tequila.
Growing up in Mexico City, Medellin always knew he wasn’t like other children. His first word was “flamingo.” He kept vampire bats in his bathroom. And don’t tell his kids, but he almost flunked out of junior high because he spent so much time with animals.
“There was a deformity in my brain,” he tells The Plate on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. to promote a BBC documentary about his work called “The Bat Man of Mexico.”
That “deformity” vaunted him to the head of the Society for the Conservation of Biology, a professional organization dedicated to biological diversity. It also caused him to develop a particular fondness for the lesser long-nosed bat, which was on the endangered list up until a few years ago in Mexico and still is in the U.S. And it turns out that lesser long-nosed bats traditionally pollinate the blue agave plant – the single plant species that is the source of Mexico’s greatest export, tequila.
For years, tequila makers have been cutting bats out of the equation, using clones that grow at the base of the mother blue agave plant to grow more plants instead of allowing the succulents to flower and attract pollinators.
After “doing this for so many generations, the agaves are getting weaker, and the only way to protect them is by the increased use of pesticides and herbicides,” David Suro of the Tequila Interchange Project, a group that promotes agave distilled spirits, told NPR last year.
Cloning has not only led to a severe absence of genetic diversity in blue agave, but it has deprived bats of food, says Medellin. “It puts us on a collision course with nature,” he says.
Medellin has been on a quest for a decade to promote the idea of saving the lesser long-nosed bats and tequila at the same time if tequileros allow a small percentage of their fields to be pollinated in the natural way. But, he says, until recently, there hasn’t been much interest.
“Right now,” Medellin says, “we have two things going for us.” First of all, “mezcal is a fad.” (Quick primer: Tequila is a kind of mezcal. Marketers thought the name tequila conferred a higher-class drink than what Americans associated with mezcal 20 years ago. Mezcal is made from many kinds of agave, is naturally pollinated and “bat-friendly.”) Bartenders and restaurateurs are beginning to seek out the higher quality mezcals and are more interested in sustainability than ever before.
And second, blue agaves are in trouble. There are 400 million blue agave plants in Mexico now, he says, and up to 40 percent of the plants are diseased or dying, he says.
But Medellin acknowledges, blue agave’s problems are severe. “Bats are not going to solve the problem overnight.” But they might just buy us some time to sip, savor and consider the options.