Beer, how climate change could affect the availability and price of the loved drink

Climate change could reduce barley yields, negatively affecting the availability and price of beer. This may not be global warming’s worst tragic consequence but could represent a sad loss.

Bad news for beer drinkers: the consequences of climate change are expected to cause a global decrease in beer production. This is because barley, beer’s key ingredient, is sensitive to increasingly hot and dry environments, confirming the negative impact of global warming on agriculture.

Read more: How agriculture and climate change are related: causes and effects

barley crops yield climate change beer
Weather patterns, such as lack of rain and heat, profoundly affect barley yields © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A decrease in beer production due to climate change

A pilot study in 2015 found differences between starches found inside barley grown in dry conditions versus the crop when well-watered. In the former, the modified starch changed the brew’s taste and quality. A more recent paper published in the journal Nature Plants used two models to predict the effects of future heat and drought conditions on barley yields, therefore beer production. They predicted an average loss of 29 billion litres of beer (16 per cent) per year, equivalent to its total annual consumption in the US.

In addition, using more resistant crops isn’t a viable alternative, since climate change is expected to influence other food staples such as wheat, maize, soy and rice. The flower buds of hop plants, used to give beer different tastes and aromas, are also expected to decrease since warmer winters will lead to earlier and smaller harvests, therefore reducing available varieties.

drinking beer climate change
Climate change, and in particular a drier and warmer climate, could profoundly affect a great pleasure, that of drinking beer © Elevate/Unsplash

Changes in the price of beer

Using this information, the same researchers used economic models to estimate the impact of this loss on the price of beer. On the whole, it’s expected to double, although countries will be affected differently. The worst hit will be Poland, with prices increasing almost fivefold. Assumptions underlying modelling techniques indicate that price increases and supply shortages may not be as dramatic as predicted. For example, modelling techniques don’t consider potential adaptations, as it’s possible that over time barley will evolve to resist warmer climates.

On the other hand, the study might actually underestimate climatic effects on future yields. For example, it was observed that barley harvests in the UK dropped significantly after only modest temperature rises. This points to the fact that this crop may not even survive future temperatures at all.

hops barley beer breweries climate change
Hops, used to give beer a variety of tastes and aromas, could decrease because of warmers winters © Adam Berry/Getty Images

Possible alternatives to barley

An alternative involves finding a variety of barley that maintains a stable grain quality in a drier environment, for example the “stay-green” type. However, this could introduce new problems relating to monocultures, as planting the same crop repeatedly may deplete soil quality due to the crop’s specific nutrient requirements. In addition, relying on only one plant variety would make the entire stock more vulnerable to disease. Genetically identical plants would be equally affected by illnesses, as opposed to plants belonging to different strains. Efforts should be oriented towards slowing down climate change and giving plant species time to (hopefully) adapt, instead of finding a short-term solution such as using climate-resilient monocultures.

beer breweries climate change cutting emissions
Many breweries are taking action to contrast climate change by cutting down on resources and emissions © Juniper Photon/Unsplash

Breweries against climate change

Thankfully, awareness has increased and action is starting to be taken. In response to existing problems regarding securing water supplies, 24 US breweries signed a Climate Declaration in 2015, pledging to take action to reduce emissions. Breweries, in fact, use a lot of energy for heating, cooling and transportation operations. In addition, producing around 4 litres of beer requires around 20 to 30 litres of water. Breweries are making a conscious effort to decrease this consumption and taking measures to use renewable energy sources. However, their combined effect will be minimal unless governments and society take serious collaborative action against climate change and its impact on beer, grains and staple crops in general.

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