The other day my vegan friend and I were attempting to figure out what the best way to go about alternatives to honey and other sweeteners for tea. We started researching all the options from organic Stevia to agave and realized most sugar-based products come with rather sour ethical and environmental issues. Agave, for one, has been heavily debated in terms of its shaky nutritional value and unsettled potential as a vegan sweetener option. Currently, the #1 selling agave brand in the US is Wholesome’s Organic Blue Agave, its golden syrup perfectly fit for baked goods, pancakes, yogurts, smoothies, and tea. Despite the sweet transparency of their liquid sugar, upon initial research, there seems to be a lack of clarity over the true agricultural implications of commercializing such a complex plant. And yet, Wholesome does do a great job in mitigating the historical inequities associated with agave production and has worked to create a more mutually-benefitting relationship between their company, international farmers, and the environment.
Blue agave (agave tequilana) is a spiny desert plant native to the arid regions of Mexico. The plant’s cores, also known as “piñas” for their resemblance to pineapples, are the main source of the syrupy nectar that is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than cane sugar. Wholesome does not use any artificial additives in their agave products, bottling only 100% agave nectar. In terms of nutritional benefits, agave unfortunately contains similar proportions of fructose (56-60%) as high fructose corn syrup (40-55%), and it generally has lower antioxidant values than honey. Yet, the most important difference between agave and high fructose corn syrups (HFCS) is that agave contains naturally-occurring fructose, similar to honey and dates, while HFCS consist of chemically-processed fructose with heavy pesticide and fertilizer use. In fact, Wholesome’s vegan blue agave products are Non-GMO Project verified and USDA Organic, meaning they avoid the use of many harmful genetic homogeneity practices as well as chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides. Both these certifications allegedly ensure the company is making an effort to safeguard biodiversity, soil, and environmental health in their production and consumption supply chains. In addition, all of Wholesome’s plastics are BPA-free and 100% recyclable, using only PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles and PP #5 caps that are easily recyclable through local curbside programs.
Blue agave is grown in Mexico and hand-harvested right before the full blooming stage. In general, it takes about 7 to 14 years for the plant to grow. When agave syrups first gained momentum in US markets, rising commercial demand caused many small-scale farmers to rely on chemical fertilizers and herbicides to ramp up the growing time of the crops and better compete with wealthier plantation-scale monocultures. As a result, these practices along with excessive economic pressures forced many smaller family-owned agave farmers out of business and placed the more genetically identical and chemically-reliant plants at higher risks of disease and biodiversity issues. Ultimately, this lack of biodiversity and increasingly commercial production of agave threatened the survival of its main pollinator, the long-nosed bats. Thus, it is reassuring to find out Wholesome is Fair Trade Certified, guaranteeing that farmers are protected and provided fair, above-market prices and resources to maintain their livelihoods and ensure sustainably grown and responsibly harvested growing standards that work to protect the land and wildlife.
With regards to the production process, after the leaves are cut off the plants, the piña cores of the agave are transported to local factories. There, the the nectar is extracted, filtered, and heated via machinery. The filtered juice is concentrated into a syrupy liquid that is then bottled and sealed. The bottling, capping, and boxing processes, despite employing less machine operations, are highly labor-intensive. However, Wholesome claims to uplift safe, ethical working conditions with high living wages. They specifically offer social premiums that are far-above the price paid for the agave itself. For example, they have helped provide farmers and factory workers alike with healthcare, food and water security, accessible education, and sustainable farming tools and training, paying more than “$10 billion in Fair Trade premiums to farming cooperatives and partners worldwide.” Wholesome has also worked to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in both the harvesting and production processes for their sugar cane products in Paraguay. Yet, it is unclear how far reaching their renewable efforts are with regards to their honey and agave production spheres.
In compliance with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, Wholesome does not tolerate forced labor, child labor, or any practice of exploitation or abuse. CEO, Nigel Willerton has expressed his commitment to respecting the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act within all facets of Wholesome’s business practices. Moreover, Wholesome guarantees all their sugar, honey, and agave products are ethically sourced, working to uplift small farming cooperatives in Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, and Malawi. The company appears to prioritize community engagement and democratic decision-making in all their agricultural partnerships. They specifically worked with the farmers of the Integradora Otilio Montaño Cooperative in Mexico to make sure they were well-supported financially and “had an alternative to seeing their crop below market value.” Each purchase of organic blue agave under the Fair Trade certification promises that “a fair price is paid directly to the farmer.” I was pleasantly surprised to research how Wholesome has elevated the livelihoods of their workers with high wages and cost-effective sustainable farming resources, while still protecting the traditions and communities of the cooperatives at-hand.
All things considered, I think Wholesome has set the standard for pursuing a business that not only works toward eco-friendly agriculture but encourages social equity and preserving farmers’ needs in every decision. I am still a little skeptical of large agricultural industries in general and believe this company could do more to establish more renewable energy and low-carbon initiatives in their manufacturing. Nonetheless, it is clear Wholesome is making major efforts to remodel a historically exploitative system of agave and sugar production.