Agave uses a turbocharged version of photosynthesis that works in even the driest spots. As climate change threatens our food supply, the race is on to harness its power in more resilient crops
15 July 2020
The drought-hardy agave is finding favour beyond its traditional Mexican heartland
Michael DeFreitas Central America/Alamy
CLOSE to the town of Ayr in Queensland, Australia, there is a field of unusual crops. The plants are a silvery shade of teal, with long fleshy leaves splaying out in all directions like thin, serrated knives. When Daniel Tan walks among them, the tallest stand two heads taller than him. There are thousands of these blue agaves here. Best known as the raw ingredient needed to make the fiery spirit tequila, they are more commonly found in Mexico than on Australia’s Pacific coast. Yet for Tan, a researcher at the University of Sydney, they are part of an impending global revolution.
We certainly need one. Plants provide us with food, fuel, building materials and natural beauty, all while locking away untold volumes of carbon dioxide that would otherwise crank up the planet’s thermostat. But as Earth’s population and temperature continue to rise, we will need more from our green allies. Our food requirements alone will be eye-watering. In 30 years, we may need to produce about 50 per cent more food to feed nearly 10 billion people – just as global warming is predicted to slash the yield of many major grain crops.
Researchers like Tan are looking to a radical solution, involving plants’ not-so-secret weapon: photosynthesis. We ultimately depend on this process, by which plants store energy from sunlight for everything that nourishes us. So it might seem odd to say it is scandalously inefficient. But it is – for most species. By understanding the secrets of plants such as …