Most beer is made from barley malt. Perhaps the greatest reason for this is that barley malt, which is dried sprouted barley grains, is particularly rich in amylase, an enzyme that can break down starch into the much smaller sugar molecules yeast use for food. Other grains and starch sources are not so able to do this, so many beers with wheat of rye in them contain large amounts of barley malt to provide extra amylase.
It happens that some of the people who really like beer are climate scientists, so it should not be surprising that a group of them modeled the availability and cost of crops as climate change worsens, as it certainly will. One such group of scientists includes researchers in the China, the U.K., and the U.S. They looked to find out how much barley could be grown in a warmer world, how much it would cost in a market with demand like that of today, and what the effect would be on the cost of beer. In the end, they gave their results in terms of a simple metric: What will the price of beer be, under various climate scenarios?
Barley was actually only one of the ingredients that they examined for their study. For example, they also modeled supplies and prices for hops, another important ingredient of beer. They also examined the potentials for agriculture in new places, such as Canada, where more barley could be grown, and the possibilities for current major producers to face declines due to warmer, drier, or more extreme weather.
The scientists published their conclusions, “Decreases in global beer supply due to extreme drought and heat,” in the journal Nature Plants (http://bit.ly/nature-beer) last October. At that time, its conclusions were described in most media as showing that beer prices could double because of climate change. What they actually said was that beer prices were projected to go up by 193%, in a mid-range scenario for climate change. Unfortunately, nearly all of the media misunderstood this and reported it as doubling the price. An increase of 193% brings the price to 293%, or nearly triple what it currently is.
Also, unfortunately for beer drinkers, that mid-range scenario is getting to look increasingly unlikely, as the most likely scenario of climate change is getting worse, due to our political inaction. The website IFLScience has an article that illustrates this whose title speaks for itself, “Permafrost in Canada is Thawing 70 Years Earlier Than Expected” (http://bit.ly/fast-thaw). So perhaps we should act as though the scenario for the end of the 21st century were only a decade away.
Other news would reinforce that idea. Th article at IFLScience appeared only days after news came at CNN’s web site that two billion tons of Greenland’s ice had melted in a single day (http://bit.ly/melting-greenland). Things are changing far faster than anyone anticipated, and it is not good.
The Nature Plants article provided a number of scenarios, and the one widely reported was just a mid-range example. The worst case it described (though not the worst that could conceivably happen) had the price of beer in some places increasing by 338%, with Ireland as the example. To be absolutely clear, that means an increase to 438% of what it currently costs. So, if a six-pack of a beer costs $9 now, in this scenario, it would go to nearly $40.
While these are just the results of scientific modeling, they are being taken quite seriously by people in the brewing business. An article at supplychaindive.com describes the work Molson Coors is doing to perform risk management (http://bit.ly/molson-risk-management). It says that over the past decade, Molson Coors has put over $20 million into assuring that they have barley in the future. To do that, it is working with growers to ensure that things do not go completely out of hand. It has set up a web portal to manage data.
The potential for the price of beer to get outrageous, however, is not the really bad news. Barley is just one food resource. Its supply problems speak to an overall need to address problems of climate change for agriculture, regardless of the crop. Barley is sensitive to temperature and availability of water but so is just about everything else farmers grow. Barley will be grown in areas that had not previously been warm enough for it, but overall, production would probably decline markedly. Sadly, the same is true for peas, carrots, poultry, and more.
We have seen prices spike for foods in the past. In 1974, the price of sugar suddenly jumped about ten-fold. The same year, an onion shortage made them disappear altogether from many supermarkets. And about the same time, our country ran out of grapes and raisins. Many people do not remember those shortages. They went away quickly, and now they seem somehow unreal.
The shortages we see for the future have a different sort of reality. As they come, which it seems they certainly will, the price increases will not be spikes that go away quickly, as those of the past did. They will be of very long duration, possibly decades.
The conclusion for this should not be as scary as it might sound, provided people prepare for the changes. The advice we can give is for all people to grow as much of their own food as possible. For those who do not have land for a garden, we suggest using community gardens, where they exist, and advocating for them where they do not. And learn how to save your seeds.