The Billion Agave Project is an ecosystem regeneration strategy recently adopted by a group of visionary Mexican farmers in the high desert of Guanajuato.
Mexico has launched a monumental project that could change desert landscapes and benefit economies around the world. The plan combines cultivating agave plants and nitrogen-fixing companion tree species, such as mesquite (pictured below), with rotational livestock grazing. The result is a high yield of forage and biomass even on degraded semi-arid lands.
The system produces large amounts of agave leaves and root stems that can create up to one ton of biomass over the 8-10 year life of one plant. When chopped and fermented, the plant material produces an excellent and inexpensive animal fodder costing a whopping 2 cents a pound. This agroforestry system reduces pressure on overgrazed rangelands while at the same time improving soil health and water retention, along with drawing down and storing massive amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The goal of the Billion Agave campaign is to plant one billion agave globally in order to draw down and store one billion tons of C02. The campaign is being funded by donations, along with public and private investments.
When bruised, Mexican agave (maguey) leaves produce a paste from which paper can be made. The juice is fermented into an alcoholic beverage called pulque; its leaves provide a thick thatch for roofs. Thread can be made from the coarse tufts, and strong cords from the twisted fibers. Thorns at the ends of the leaves are made into pins and needles. Cooked roots provide nourishing food.
The four major edible parts of the agave are the flowers, leaves, stalks or basal rosettes, and the aquamiel (Spanish for honey water or sap).
Food and fiber
Each agave plant produces several pounds of edible flowers during its final season. The stalks weigh several pounds each and are sweet when roasted. Like sugarcane, they can be chewed. When dried, stalks can be used to make didgeridoos. Leaves collected in winter and spring when the plants are full of sap are nutritious. The leaves of several species yield fiber. Among these are Agave sisalana, the sisal hemp, and Agave decipiens, false sisal hemp. Agave americana is the source of pita fiber used to make cords and paper in Mexico, the West Indies, and southern Europe.
(Tools used to obtain agave's ixtle fibers, at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City, D.F.; Thelmadatter, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Navajo also found many uses for the plant. Besides a beverage, the heads can be baked or boiled, pounded into flat sheets, sun-dried, and stored for future use. They are also boiled and eaten whole or made into a paste for soups. The young, tender stalks and shoots are roasted and eaten as well. The fibers are used to make rope. Leaves are used to line baking pits, and the sharp-pointed leaf tips are used as basketry awls.
During the development of the inflorescence, sap rushes to the base of the young flower stalk. Agave syrup/agave nectar is made from this sap. It can be used as a sugar substitute for cooking and added to breakfast cereals as a binding agent. Agave sweeteners are diabetic-friendly. Agave leaf extracts are also being researched as potential food additives.
Beverages and tequila
The sap of A. americana and other species is used in Mexico and Central America to produce an alcoholic beverage. The flower shoot is cut out and the sap is collected and fermented. Mezcal is then distilled. One of its best-known forms is tequila. Agave tequilana, or Agave tequilana var. azul, is used in its production. Agave angustifolia is widely used in the production of mezcal and pulque; however, at least 10 other Agave species are used for this purpose.
Agave is used for the commercial production of fructans, a prebiotic dietary fiber. As a result of its natural habitat in stressful environments, it is being researched for potential uses in germplasm conservation, as well as biotechnology research to better anticipate the economic effects of global climate change. It can possibly be used as a bioethanol feedstock.
The importance of the Billion Agave Project worldwide is enormous.
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