Evolving Beer’s Supply Chain in an Era of Climate Change

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Beer has been around a long time. New research from Stanford University has uncovered a 13,000-year old beer-brewing operation near what is now Haifa, Israel. And throughout that 13,000-year history, beer has evolved, starting with where the grains for that beer were grown. That’s the primary reason why, although climate change certainly poses future supply chain challenges for beer, the beer industry is well positioned to evolve even as the global climate shifts.

A new paper has gained significant media traction this week by suggesting that beer prices may increase and, as a result, total beer sales may decline significantly as climate changes threaten yields in current barley growing regions. But luckily, this paper is largely an academic exercise and not one that brewers or beer lovers should lose any sleep over. The beer industry certainly understands and is already preparing for shifts in climate. Here are three signs that beer is actively preparing for changes in climate…

1. Barley crop production geography shifts over time

Although the paper in question assumes that “the current geographical distribution and area of barley cultivation” stays the same, anyone who has watched barley markets over time knows that doesn’t make any sense given historical trends. Barley crops have long shifted around the world due to a variety of factors, including climatic conditions and competition with other crops. For North America, the chart below shows Canadian production as a % of the N. American crop, demonstrating the clear northern migration of Barley in North America (Sources: USDA-NASS and Statistics Canada).

2. Barley crop production efficiency continues to grow over time

The paper outlines a scenario in which climate change results in smaller barley crops and reduced average yields from extreme events. However, those projections “do not assess the effect of future changes in barley agriculture.” That also makes no sense when looking at historical data. The second chart below is a time series of North American barley yield from 1945-2018 (same sources, based on acres harvested).

So in N. America, we’ve averaged a 1.4% yield increase year over year for 7.5 decades. Yes, extreme events pose challenges (and you can see some bad years in that graph), but even at a worst case of -17% effect on yields, that’s equivalent to the average yield increase barley farmers have achieved every 11 years on average. Put differently, a -17% yield from climate change in 2099 is small in the context of yields that go up 17% every 11 years. At 1.4%, we’re looking at yields predicted to be 218% higher in 2099 based on the historical data. Now, we’re not agronomists, so it’s possible yield increases can’t keep that pace – but the yield decreases anticipated in the paper are very small compared to what the historical data predicts about increases over time.

3. Brewers and the beer industry are already preparing for future changes in climate

Points one and two show that barley farmers have long been active in planting decisions and technological improvements that leave them well-positioned to weather the challenges of climate change. Brewers and the beer industry in general are doing the same.

For example, the Brewers Association (BA) is currently supporting several research projects that address barley life habit (winter versus spring), heat and drought tolerance, water usage efficiency, local barley production to reduce shipping costs, decreased nitrogen input requirements, etc. The BA is also providing financial support for renewed hop breeding activities within the USDA-ARS public hop research program. One primary program goal is to provide a source of genetically diverse hop plant germplasm to allow hop farmers to achieve commercial success across a variety of geographies and climatic conditions. Additionally, the BA is also supporting research that seeks to understand the genomics of heat and drought tolerance in hops.

And it isn’t just small brewers that are taking this issue seriously. Anheuser-Busch has a program called SmartBarley, and MillerCoors has several different initiatives related to sustainability. Other brewing industry stakeholder groups in the U.S. – barley (American Malting Barley Association Inc.) and hops (Hop Research Council) – and in Canada (Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute) are likewise steering research resources to understand and overcome the continued challenges associated with production of critical beer ingredients.

None of the above should be taken as a suggestion that climate change does not pose a serious challenge for any industry that is built on agricultural inputs. Many industries, not just beer, will face these challenges. Western wine growers are already seeing increased challenges around “smoke taint”, as fire season grows in intensity. Distilled spirits producers also rely on agricultural inputs. Consequently, beer prices and beer demand won’t exist in a vacuum, but in an interconnected market that sees a variety of shocks from a shifting climate. However, as the data above show, given the historical record, beer is as well positioned as any industry to evolve and thrive even as the climate changes.

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