Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Brewers acknowledge climate change might have an impact, but point out that if global warming causes a problem in one region they can just buy their inputs from somewhere else.
EVOLVING BEER’S SUPPLY CHAIN IN AN ERA OF CLIMATE CHANGE
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).
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.
As the Brewers Association points out, the key bad assumption of this “end of beer” study is that farmers will not attempt to adapt to a changing climate – that they will keep trying to grow exactly the same crops they grow today, even if those crops stop producing good yields.
As an “academic exercise” such studies have their place. Scientists often try to fix as many variables as they can, to see what impact the variable they are studying has on outcomes.
What is completely unreasonable is to try to infer real world outcomes from an unrealistic fixed variable study.
In the real world farmers adapt – if a warming climate damages yields, they do some research and plant something else, usually in a test field at first, then on a larger scale if the new crop produces better profits.
All that will happen in the real world, if substantial global warming occurs, is that barley growing regions will shift a few hundred miles North. Farmers who grow barley on the Southern edge of the current growing region would switch to other crops. Farmers to the North of the current growing region would start planting Barley.