Globalization and the blue agave

Tequila in 14th century China? What will the WTO think?

Published October 19, 2006 10:29PM (EDT)

There was one rule for expatriates who wanted to crash in my apartment in Taipei on their first night in-country. If they planned on sleeping on the scruffy tatami mats that covered our living room floor, they had to bring a bottle of Cuervo Gold in tribute.

Tequila was hard to come by in the bad old days of the Beer & Wine monopoly in Taiwan, circa 1986. We cherished its arrival from far off shores, so much more distant in that pre-Internet era than now. It should go without saying that the bottles were invariably consumed the night they arrived, resulting in ungodly combinations of jet lag and hangovers the next day, the perfect way to start another tour of duty as Chinese student or English teacher.

By the time I left the island tequila was widely available, part of the amazing worldwide success story of the spawn of the blue agave, just one more niche anecdote in the narrative of globalization. And I must note that while the Chinese do have a tendency to tout their historical contributions to civilization, never once did I hear one of the men or women whom I convinced to down his or her first shot claim that the Han people had brewed their own tequila in days of yore. So I was shocked to see this morning, in one of my favorite new China blogs, Jottings From the Granite Studio, a reference to a People's Daily Online news article declaring the discovery of archeological remains of Ming and Qing dynasty distilleries that had produced tequila.

What's more: "Archaeological studies show that China had developed mature tequila distilling technology in the late Yuan Dynasty or early Ming Dynasty."

There's something wrong here: Tequila, by definition, is only distilled from blue agave succulents grown in the Jalisco state of Mexico. The name comes from the town of Tequila, which is almost wholly devoted to production of the spirit. The blue agave is indigenous to the central Mexico highlands. There is no way, no how, that Chinese distillers were making tequila in the 14th century.

My first suspicion is that there is a translation problem somewhere along the line here. My second would be to wonder whether the Chinese are plotting to undermine Mexico's claim that the intellectual property embodied in "tequila" is protected under the Geographic Indications provision of the World Trade Organization's Trade Related Aspects Of Intellectual Property agreement. As a case study at American University's fantastic Trade and Environment Database (pointed to by Granite Studio) notes, Mexico was the very last country to ratify China's accession to the WTO, partly out of fears that cheap tequila manufactured in central China would flood world markets. As it currently stands, only tequila made from Jaliscan blue agave can be marketed as tequila. But if the Chinese were somehow brewing it in the 14th century, hey, all bets are off.

(A side note -- yesterday U.C. Berkeley economic historian Brad DeLong linked to a Trade and Environment Database case study on Brazil's answer to tequila, cachaça. (Adios margarita, olá caipirinha!) Today, Granite Studio links to their case study on tequila. Both focused on the efforts of the responsible countries to get "geographic indication" status for their spirits. I am not one who dares ignore the subtle signals of the blogosphere. I surf, and I obey. So, here we go, a quick introduction to the endlessly fascinating topic of geographic indications.)

Geographic indications offer a peculiar twist on traditional concepts of intellectual property. They're kind of like trademarks, only they aren't given to specific companies or people, but to regions that incorporate a particular process or material in their production of a product. Thus, there is no limit to the number of companies that can make "tequila" -- as long as they are based in Jalisco and use the blue agave as their base stock.

At present the WTO gives geographic indication protection to wines and spirits, but the extension of that status to other goods, like, say, Basmati rice or Roquefort cheese has become a hotly debated topic during ongoing (but currently stalled) trade negotiations. And here is where it gets interesting. The fight for stronger intellectual property protection has traditionally been led by the developed world, in particular, the U.S., the E.U. and Japan. But the fight to extend geographic indication protections has split that alliance. The E.U., with its centuries of traditional food and drink specialities, wants more protections. Not only that, it even wants to "claw back" protected status for scores of products that have spawned cheap U.S. imitations, like Kraft's "Parmesan" cheese, or Wisconsin's "feta" cheese.

The U.S. is horrified by such revisionism. Increased intellectual property protection is great when it protects the interests of American corporations, like Hollywood movie studios, record companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. But when it might threaten the profits of American companies, then, gasp, it's evil protectionism and it must be stopped at all costs.

Some analysts have tried to frame the struggle as an Old World-New World split, in contrast to classic North-South splits. But a growing number of developing nations are lining up with the E.U. Just as Brazil has seen with cachaça and Mexico with tequila, geographic indication protections are a way to bolster their own domestic specialties against the low-cost foreign imitators spawned by relentless globalization. As one observer notes, "To assert the importance of a GI is, in part, to assert the importance of local culture and tradition in the face of ever-encroaching globalization."

So the next time you hear the whir of a blender crushing ice, lime juice, tequila and triple sec, or watch someone muddling some sugar, lime chunks and cachaça together, think to yourself: That's the sweet sound of fair globalization. We need to hear more of it.

UPDATE: Some commenters at the Granite Studio have ferreted out the original Chinese article, and the confusion over tequila does seem to be related to a translation error.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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