Skyrocketing beer prices have been in the headlines lately as a recent study, published October 15 in Nature Plants, predicts climate change could decimate barley crops and decrease the amount available for brewing. The study, by Wei Xie from Peking University in Beijing and colleagues, found barley is a crop particularly susceptible to droughts and heat waves and it could be at risk from climate change. The researchers predicted barley yield could decline 3 to 17 percent, which could increase prices drastically, such as the 193 percent increase predicted for Ireland.
However, despite these grave predictions for beer lovers, many beer industry pros aren't too concerned about the study. They've been addressing sustainability and climate change for years, and promising new barley varieties could hold the keys to increased yields despite changing conditions.
Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson and supply chain specialist Chris Swersey released an official statement responding to the study on October 16, reassuring beer aficionados that “the beer industry is well positioned to evolve even as the global climate shifts,” and adding, “luckily, this paper is largely an academic exercise and not one that brewers or beer lovers should lose any sleep over.”
As an academic exercise, the study acknowledged it focused on the “current geographical distribution and area of barley cultivation” for its modeling, and the authors also acknowledge they didn't delve into potential technological changes in how barley is grown, instead basing their analysis on current methods. These variables could be key factors in the ultimate yield and quality of the crop.
Additionally, the methods for growing barley—as well as the varieties of the crop—are constantly evolving as agronomists learn how to improve yield, make a crop that is more heat and drought-resistant and more sustainable. The Brewers Association analyzed barley production over time and noted in their statement they found over the past 75 years, average North American yield increased 1.4 percent each year. If that trend were to continue—and they acknowledge they don't know if it will—the 17 percent decrease Xie's study predicted to see by 2099 would be offset by just 11 years' worth of growth.
Where does this growth come from? Brewers, farmers and scientists are working in tandem to conduct a vast amount of research on crop production in order to develop improved varieties to meet their needs. The Brewers Association funds research to do everything from develop drought and heat-resistant varieties to more water-efficient crops and more genetically diverse hops that grow in a wider array of locations and climates. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch InBev's SmartBarley program works with growers to learn more about how they grow barley in order to help improve these practices, increasing yield and being more efficient with resources.
Kim Marotta is global senior director of corporate responsibility at Molson Coors, and she says the industry is already working to combat climate change. “[The study] didn’t raise an alarm with us, because we’re quite confident in our ability to access barley for the long term,” she says, noting they've been taking steps for quite a while to help address climate change and ensure long-term access to barley and other crucial beer-making resources.
Instead, Marotta says the company is working on reducing carbon emissions 50 percent by 2025 (and 20 percent within the value chain), in addition to improving the efficiency of water use and other goals. The company works with farmers to maximize resource use efficiency. For example, they worked with farmers to help them analyze their irrigation systems and increase efficiency, including optimizing some of their water delivery methods and increasing technology, such as installing systems where farmers could adjust or even turn off their irrigation systems via smartphone to account for changing conditions, such as reducing irrigation if it was raining.
In 2016, the company also launched a new variety of Montana malt barley, which they dubbed Bill Coors 100 in honor of Bill Coors' 100th birthday. This variety uses less water and fertilizer and is more energy efficient. By the following year, it became quite popular and now it is the second most planted variety in Montana by acre, which is very significant since Montana is the second highest malt barley growing state in the country. MillerCoors works with 330 Montana malt barley growers, and the company obtains approximately 38 percent of the barley it uses from these farmers.
Barley production isn’t the only concern for beer makers. According to Marotta, Molson Coors is constantly evaluating an array of climate change-related risks pertaining to energy, waste, water and other factors. Since water is beer’s main ingredient, the availability and quality of water is one of the company’s key concerns, working to assess watersheds in high risk areas where they have breweries. Eleven of these watersheds are of particular concern in terms of climate change, including some in California, Texas and Colorado.
“In 2017, we partnered with NGO's, agricultural stakeholders, government and other corporations to restore approximately 460 million gallons of water to these three watersheds,” Marotta says. “I think it’s important for brewers to fight climate change. I think it's important for industry to fight climate change, I think it's important for government people and everyone to really look at the impacts of climate change. But the brewing industry in and of itself has a really tremendous opportunity to lead in this space.”