High-tech green approach in agave fields

22 June, 2023

Diageo employs drones to boost water conservation in Jalisco as tequila on brink of overtaking vodka as industry leader in the US.

Demand for agave-based spirits is on the rise, but with that demand sees a need for brands to focus on more sustainable practices.

The IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reported an overall category volume growth of 13% in 2021-2022 for agave, driven by performance in the US. This growth in the US market will remain pronounced, 9% volume CAGR 2022-2027, as tequila is set to overtake vodka this year to become the industry leader by value in the US. The IWSR also found that heightened consumer awareness of the category will boost agave alternatives, with volumes of raicilla, bacanora, and sotol collectively increased by nearly 40% in the US in 2022.

Brand owners are now looking to evaluate operations and producing agave-based spirits in a more sustainable way. One such company is Diageo, producer of Don Julio and Casamigos tequilas, which has introduced the use of drones on its agave farms in Jalisco, Mexico, following a successful pilot conducted in 2022.

The use of drones will allow Diageo to upskill its agave planters and drive efficiency across agave farming. Since mid-2022, drones have been used to identify which agave plants need the pesticide and fertiliser water mix and how much, to ensure water resources are used only where needed.

Working in pairs, one drone is used to identify the plants that need attention and collect data on the growth of the agave plants, and the other dispenses a water fertiliser and pesticide mix where needed at night, when the stomata is open.

The data has revealed the best time of day to water the plants, being in the early hours of the morning when it’s cooler, as there is less wind to reduce water loss and the agave plant is more receptive to it, resulting in water use dropping by an expected two thirds. With drones, it also means fewer tractors need to be driven across the farmland, reducing carbon emissions.

Ewan Andrew, chief sustainability officer, says: “As the demand for tequila continues to grow, we want to be able to increase our farming efficiency, but in a way that is also kind to the planet. This initiative is a perfect example of the two coming together. It’s an exciting way in which we’re using technological innovation to boost production, upskill our farmers, and help us to meet our 2030 sustainability goals.”

The efforts contribute to Diageo’s 2030 ESG action plan, Society 2030: Spirit of Progress. Within the plan, the company has committed to preserve the natural resources on which long-term success depends, including to reduce its water use in water-stressed areas by 40% by 2030, and by 30% in all other areas.

Another company striving for further sustainability in the agave market is Beam Suntory, producer of Casa Sauza and other tequila brands. The company is launching a first-of-its-kind pilot programme within the tequila industry which will explore regenerative agricultural practices in the agave fields near its Casa Sauza operations in Jalisco, Mexico. The programme has potential to reveal new opportunities to improve carbon capture, while supporting Beam Suntory’s Proof Positive sustainability agenda and commitment to achieving net zero emissions in direct operations by 2030.

Additional plants

In partnership with environmental professional services company Red Bio Terra, the programme will explore methods of maximising carbon capture in agave fields by introducing additional plants. These will absorb carbon during the day between rows of agave, which absorb carbon at night to avoid water loss, and is expected, if successful, to neutralise 50% of Casa Sauza’s emissions by 2026, and 100% by 2030.

“This marks an exciting step toward more sustainably sourcing the highest quality agave for our Casa Sauza tequila, ultimately benefiting the environment through the power of regenerative agriculture,” says Kim Marotta, global vice president of environmental sustainability, Beam Suntory.

The pilot programme is the latest development in Casa Sauza’s commitment to environmentally friendly practices. The tequila brand continues working to further reduce water, energy and waste at its facilities through production improvements and new technologies, including switching from fuel oil to natural gas.

“We are proud to be kicking off this new pilot programme, which has the potential to capture more than 36,800 tons of carbon per year, leading to healthier soil, increased biodiversity and reduced soil erosion,” says Servando Calderon, general manager of tequila operations, Casa Sauza.

Results from the pilot programme are anticipated by the end of its first year of study, with the potential to extend for an additional seven years.

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