Science | November 2, 2017 9:00 am

How the Tequila Industry Is Endangering Bats—and Itself

'Cloned agave' farming is threatening bats and leaving the industry's crops more vulnerable.

Oddly enough, you can’t have tequila without bats. But now, modern industrial agricultural practices are breaking that link and adversely affecting both the agave used to make tequila and the bats necessary to pollinate them.

Agave is one of a few plants that pollinates at night, which means that long-tongued Mexican bats are one of the few species that can pollinate it. In fact, bats and agave have co-evolved over thousands of years. Mike Daulton, the executive director of Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit devoted to the well-being of bats, told NPR that bats are “intimately tied to agave.”

But this connection is under threat because of major tequila companies adoption of “cloned agave” for production. Cloned agave is easy and cheap for big liquor companies, but it disrupts the ecosystem because using it means there is less pollen for the bats to eat and agave crops more vulnerable to fungus or disease, reports NPR. This could be avoided if bats were still used to pollinate the plants, because their feeding patterns naturally cross-pollinate different flowers to create more robust, genetic diversity.

In addition, herbicides and other chemicals used on the agave plants could be harming the three kinds of bats that feed on the plant, NPR notes.  The Mexican long-nosed bat and the lesser long nosed-bat are already listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The third bat that pollinates agave is the Mexican long-tongued bat, and it is listed as a species of conern.

To address this,  a coalition of bartenders, scientists, industry consultants and people who just straight-up love tequila have joined together to form the Tequila Interchange Project. This group wants to make producing the liquor more sustainable and to promote bat-friendly brands of tequila and mescal. These brands allow a portion of the agave plants they grow to flower, so that the bats can be fed when night falls.