Beer lovers dread looming shortages and price spikes

October 16, 2018

At the September 27 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which then-nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was questioned about allegations of sexual assault, he was clear about his love of lager. “Yes, we drank beer,” he said, referring to his group of high school friends at the Georgetown Preparatory School. “My friends and I, the boys and girls. Yes, we drank beer. I liked beer. Still like beer. We drank beer.”

Indeed, as a senior, Kavanaugh wrote in the yearbook, “100 kegs or bust”—the goal he and his classmates set for their high school experience.

That’s way above the average for most Americans, but by any measure, beer is a very popular U.S. beverage. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization in 2014, Americans drink an average of 2.4 gallons of alcohol, per person, per year—and beer accounts for half of all drinking in the United States.

Now, Kavanaugh and his fellow beer-lovers nationwide are facing a looming shortage of their favorite brew, according to reports by The New York Times and Reuters.

The cause is climate change.

Specifically, new research conducted by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Britain warns that increasingly widespread and severe drought and heat may cause substantial decreases in barley yields worldwide, affecting the supply used to make beer, and ultimately resulting in “dramatic” falls in beer consumption and rises in beer prices.

Extreme weather events featuring both heat waves and droughts will occur as often as every two or three years in the second half of the century if temperatures rise at current rates, the study determined.

Average global barley yields during extreme events are expected to drop between 3% and 17%, depending on the conditions, said the study, published in the journal Nature Plants on October 18.

Under the hottest scenario, China will suffer the most shortages this century, followed by the United States, Germany, and Russia, the researchers said.

Dabo Guan, a professor of Climate Change Economics at the University of East Anglia and the study’s lead author, said beer issues pale in comparison to other climate induced problems, including food security, storm damage and fresh water scarcity.

The study did not consider climate change’s affects on other staple ingredients of beer such as hops.

Consumers in developed countries who want to avoid shortages would be wise to support policies reducing emissions of gases scientists blame for warming the planet, Guan said.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, said this year it would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2025.

Jess Newman, the head of U.S. agronomy for Anheuser-Busch, said the company was experimenting with developing drought-resistant barley and working with farmers to reduce their need for water by, for example, encouraging them to place irrigation sprinklers closer to the ground.

“It’s definitely an incremental process but we have many varieties in the pipeline,” Newman said when asked how close the company was to breeding a drought-resistant barley in the United States. For several years, Anheuser-Busch has used a winter barley in Idaho that gets moisture from melting snow, cutting the need for irrigation.

Research contact: Dabo.Guan@uea.ac.uk

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