A 2018 WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health revealed that about 45% of total recorded alcohol consumed worldwide is in the form of spirits, with beer a close second at 34%. According to a market research report by IMARC Group, the global beer market was worth $600 billion in 2018, and projected to reach $700 billion by 2024. This translates to about 190 billion litres of beer consumed in 2018 alone. For the purposes of capacity grasp, that is equivalent to about 25 times the full capacity of water the Akosombo Dam in Ghana is built to hold.

The value and volume of the global beer market is still expected to witness strong growth in the future owing to myriad reasons. Chief among these reasons is the introduction of innovative flavours and ingredients by breweries making beer the favoured drink amongst millennials worldwide. Additionally, the global taste for craft beer (beer made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by a small brewery with customized taste) seems to keep increasing which is a sure gain for the beer market. Increasing disposable income, along with growing youth population and increasing female consumers owing to cultural changes and growing influence of western culture are all expected to boost the future demand for beer.

In the Ghanaian context, locally distilled beverages such as akpeteshie and palm wine, widely sold in the informal markets, remain the staple alcoholic beverages of choice. The Ghana Draft Policy Report on Alcohol states that the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Ghana is distributed as follows: beer – 30%; wine – 10%; spirits – 3%; other (locally distilled) – 57%. Again, beer ranks second in Ghana as the people’s favourite. The beer market in Ghana was worth US$ 450 million in 2017 representing 75% of the total alcohol market value. Industry analysis estimates that the volume of beer consumed will increase from 226 million litres in 2012 to a forecasted 327 million litres in 2020.

The devastating effects of climate change on global economies and commodity markets have been highlighted severally by leading research institutions and universities around the world. Of prime interest, and worry, is the effect on agriculture in terms of production, quality and supply. Beer production is heavily dependent on how global agriculture thrives. Beer is largely produced using cereal grains (usually barley), hops, water, and yeast that are fermented for a period of time. Often, ingredients such as herbs and fruits are also used in order to add certain flavouring and fragrance to the product.  However, the main ingredient in beer production globally is barley. Unfortunately, the availability of almost all these raw materials are hugely affected by a changing climate.

Barley is one of the healthiest grains that does not get the nutritional attention it deserves. With its chewy texture and nutty flavour, barley is a delicious whole grain that can be used in bread, soups, stews and beverages. Barley’s claim to nutritional fame is owing to its contents as a good source of molybdenum, manganese, selenium, and dietary fibre, and a good source of copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium, and niacin. The nutritional load ensures some impressive health benefits, ranging from improved intestinal digestion and weight loss to lower cholesterol levels and a healthier heart.       

Climate change effect on global barley production

Of all the interests in barley, one must consider that the crop has three main uses: as food for humans, as feed for livestock, and as raw material for beer production. Among these three uses, barley grown for beer is required to meet very specific quality parameters. Malted barley gives beer much of its flavour, yet if it is too hot or there isn’t enough water during critical growing stages, the malt cannot be extracted.

Unlike barley for food or feedstock, barley for beer cannot be compromised in terms of quality due to the refined taste in the beer markets. Therefore, if there are extreme drought and heat events during barley growing seasons, something that will become more common owing to global warming in the future, barley for beer will be the most affected.

To find out the effect of climate change on barley yields worldwide, a group of researchers from Peking University and the University of East Anglia researched the impact of various climate change scenarios on barley yields in 34 world regions which either produce or drink a lot of beer. They found that on global average results, barley yields could fall by between 3 and 17%. Significant to mention that these global average results hide significant regional variations. For example, climate models projected that barley yields would drop sharply in most of the tropical areas of Central and South America, and Central Africa but simultaneously drop just moderately in temperate Europe, or even increase in parts of the US or Russia. But the overall trend is clear: at a global level, barley yields will decrease by 3% (best case) or by 17% (worst case).

Climate effect from barley to beer

It has been established that climate change will mean less barley, but what about beer? It has also been mentioned that the best quality barley is reserved for beer production which means declining yields will hit beer production hardest. The research results aforementioned establishes that during the most severe climate events, the price of beer would double and global production would decline by 16%, or 29 billion litres by 2030, which is roughly equal to the total annual beer consumption of the US. This reduction in supply could unbalance beer prices globally (assuming the demand for beer does not wane).

Possible climate adaptation options

The most straightforward adaptation option would seem to suggest a reduction of global beer intake. However, I will refrain from highlighting that option due to the economic and individual interests which are aligned with that, and its antecedent health benefits (or disbenefits as the case may be), which is not within the scope of this article. Nonetheless, several options exist which the beer industry and governments can adopt to manage the future scenarios – some of which are: developing crop varieties tolerant to heat, drought and salinity; managing soil nutrients and erosion on farmlands; matching livestock numbers with changes in pastures; reducing monoculture by intercropping with other high nutrient fixation crops; controlling the spread of pests, weeds and diseases; and increasing production in areas projected in the future to be favourable to barley growth such as parts of the US and Russia.

These adaptations options, most of which are already been practised extensively, if widely supported globally with corporate and political will should enhance the suitability of barley to the current growing regions and limit the effect of climate change on the future price of beer.

The key learning point here, however, is one should not see climate action as a remote and alien corporate subject which has nothing to do with the individual because whatever the case may be, the effects of climate change are sure to affect our individual lifestyles. Maybe you don’t drink beer. But what about the effect on your precious vegetable or fruit salad, that rice and beans stew you cherish so much, or the disappearance of your favourite leisure park owing to water scarcity.

The time for individual and collective action on climate change is now. No one has gone to the year 2050 and back to tell us definitively what will happen, but let us believe the science and the science alarms us of a rapidly warming planet. Unfortunately, as the debate on climate action continues to heat up, so does our dear planet.