Barley is the key ingredient in beer, as it is made today. The problem is that barley is particularly sensitive to climate extremes, explain Wei Xie of Peking University with colleagues from universities around the world.
Unfortunately for beer-lovers, much of the world’s barley crop is grown in regions expected to suffer from climbing temperatures and intensifying aridity. The degree to which barley will suffer depends on how extreme the extremes of heat and drought actually get.
The beef or beer dilemma
Climate change is expected to have different effects in different areas around the world. The scientists examined 34 key regions for barley and assessed the vulnerability of the global beer supply to disruptions by extreme heat and drought in key farming areas.
They also assessed how barley yield shocks are likely to affect allocation for beer versus animal feed. It bears adding that in the year 2011,beer manufacturing used 17 percent of global barley production, and that historically, when extreme weather hurts crops, livestock needs are prioritized over luxuries such as beer. Please excuse us for calling beer a luxury.
The greatest decreases in barley yield would be in tropical areas such as Central and South America and Central Africa, the team projects. Yields in temperate barley-growing areas in Europe and the U.S. would diminish only moderately, or possibly even increase.
But the bottom line is that whichever climate-change scenario you pick, which is a function of your faith in humankind’s ability to control itself and stop emitting greenhouse gases, the world faces a diminishing barley crop. (There is no scientific scenario in which global climate will remain as it is it now. None.)
If we stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately and the average global temperature increases by the least-onerous scenario (called RCP 2.6), which means an increase of about 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius on average, the team projects that the world barley yield could diminish by 3 percent by the year 2099.
Just to put things into proportion, if the world barley crop in 2017 was about 145 million metric tons, 3 percent of that is equivalent to about 4.4 million metric tons.
Now, making 1 gallon of beer requires about 3.2 lbs. of grain (using industrial processes, on average, the darker the brew, the more grain you need).
Sooooooo, if we assume that one gallon of beer is equivalent to 10 slightly nonstandard bottles of beer, in the best-case scenario in which “only” 3 percent of the world barley supply is lost – that is equivalent to losing 30.3 billion bottles of beer on the wall. A year.
At the other end of the grimy rainbow, if we continue to produce greenhouse gases at the pace we do now (RCP 8.5), the team predicts that the global mean barley yield will plummet by around 15 percent,which would mean a yearly loss of over 150 billion bottles of beer.
Fear of flying high
But the price of beer is likely to increase by a lot more than 15 percent.
As barley becomes scarcer, it will become more expensive. Even though we might badly want our escapes, priorities are likely to change. In future extreme heat and drought, less barley will be allocated for beer production and more for eating, by humans and animals. This means beer itself will become scarcer, and more expensive.
Even in the best-case scenario, at the least, beer prices will increase by about 15 percent – in countries where it isn’t popular anyway, the team estimates. In the worst-case scenario, by the year 2099, the authors foresee beer prices rising by as much as 338 percent in countries like Ireland.
Clearly, the price of beer isn’t likely to increase uniformly around the world. The team concluded that countries where beer is currently most expensive (for example, Australia and Japan) are not necessarily where future price shocks will be the greatest.
Thing is, if you’re willing to fork over a Kingfisher’s ransom for a bottle of beer, you won’t be fussed by a little hike.
“Changes in the price of beer in a country relate to consumers’ ability and willingness to pay,” the scientists sagely point out. The richer the country, the more the price of beer is likely to rise.
Couldn’t beer be made using other grains? Yes, absolutely, but barley is the usual suspect. In fact, some archaeologists even suspect that agriculture evolved in antiquity chiefly in order to grow barley for beer. Others would rather believe that we learned to grow food in order to eat and feed the kids, then used any surplus to ferment for drink.
Millennia later, all we can say is that however it arose, beer has been with us for at least 10,000 years, or 11,000, if we agree with archaeologists that troughs found in Turkey were used to make beer.
In today’s world, work has been done by others to estimate the impact of climate change on luxuries such as chocolate, coffee or wine. Beer is the most popular quaff in the world, but if it costs as much as champagne does today, even in rich countries - it won’t stay that way.