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Mexican farmers replace tequila plant with corn

Ethanol demand has doubled corn prices, making it more profitable than agave.

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– Martha Venegas Trujillo stands in the center of the town square of Tequila, the heart of a plan to connect distilleries, archeological sites, craftsmakers, and restaurants via a route called the "Tequila Trail."

Her eyes shine. A highlight of the project she is coordinating, modeled after similar tourist circuits such as California's Napa Valley, are the miles and miles spent driving past the blue-hued agave fields that blanket the state of Jalisco.

But imagine if those fields, which were named a UNESCO World Heritage site last year, looked more like the American Great Plains, fringed instead by towering stalks of corn.

Far-fetched, Ms. Venegas Trujillo and her colleagues at the Tequila Regulatory Council say. Still, about one-quarter of those who grow agave, which is used in the production of tequila, are expected to burn their fields to make way for corn, as prices have nearly doubled from what they were a year ago, due to US ethanol demand.

Agave is not the only casualty of the corn-based ethanol craze. Mexican beans, potatoes, rice, and barley have all been mowed over for corn, a crop whose origins reside in ancient Mexican lore but has long been associated with poverty: corn farmers who can't compete and head north, Mexicans who can afford nothing but.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm for corn across the country," says Carlos Salazar, secretary general of the National Confederation of Mexican Corn Growers. Prices are up 80 percent, from 2006 to 2007. By the end of this year, he says, 2.5 million more tons of corn will be planted.

In April, Mexico's Congress passed a law for cleaner-burning ethanol to oxygenate gasoline in Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara.

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