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Study: Climate Change Could Threaten Global Beer Supply

Published: Monday, October 15, 2018 - 8:10am
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For those who remain unmoved by dire climate reports and worsening hurricanes, a new warning has emerged: Climate change is coming for your beer.

A new international climate and economics study in the journal Nature Plants warns that worsening heat and drought will lower barley yields by 3-17 percent over the 21st century.

That range depends on whether the Earth heats up by almost 3, or more than 5, degrees C (about 5-9 F).

The effect will worsen during extreme weather events, when deeper droughts and hotter days overlap. The team predicted such days will occur with an annual likelihood of 4-31 percent, and will grow more likely during the second half of the century.

But they added that even average days under global warming conditions will see notable barley crop losses.

The forecasts came from Earth-system computer models simulating a range of future climate conditions. The researchers fed outputs from these models into a crop model that determined changes in barley yields. Those changes then informed an economic model that estimated price changes.

Losses of one-twenty-fifth to one-third might not seem that extreme, but warm and dry conditions will disproportionately affect the high-quality barley used for beer. Assuming countries take no other actions to mitigate climate change, trade balances or resource allocations, such losses will roughly double beer prices in many countries.

Moreover, some countries produce more beer barley than others. In 2011, on average, 17 percent of barley globally went to beer production, but in Brazil that proportion reached 83 percent.

Co-author Dabo Guan, a climate change economist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, says he and his colleagues did not intend for the report to cause panic, or make light of more dire consequences affecting developing countries.

"It's really to alert people in developed countries: Climate change impact will happen to you as well."

The tropical areas of Central America, South America and Africa will bear the brunt of the barley crash, while European countries are projected to experience more moderate changes. Some northern areas of the U.S. and Asia could see barely increases, but Guan says these will be minimal compared to losses.

A substantial and growing body of research is examining how climate change will affect staple crops like wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. But some scientists and economists have also begun looking into what Guan's team calls "luxury essentials": Nonessential items many people say they cannot live without, such as beer, coffee or chocolate.

"Especially for rich people in the developed countries, they have the choice now and, if we don't do anything on climate change mitigation, those choices may not be available anymore," said Guan.

He also relayed a more blunt assessment by one of the paper's reviewers.

"I hope Donald Trump is a beer lover, so he can turn us back to the Paris Agreement."