Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow

By N. Ace Pugh (@DrAcePugh)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published their report on the possible consequences of global climate change.  Left unchecked and without necessary corrective steps the world will not avoid its most dire effects.

I highly recommend reading this report, at the very least looking at the policymaker summary. The outlook is grim. Imagine, if you will, a nigh-apocalyptic scenario: sea levels rise, storms intensify, forest fires become both more common and more deadly, coral reefs die off, and tropical diseases such as malaria become much more common. Do you also want a side of widespread famine, wars over water (but see), uninhabitable Middle East with that order? Sure thing. Humanity always aims to please. Wealthy, temperate countries such as the United States will likely be less affected at first, which is incredibly unfair because the U.S. and other first world nations disproportionately contributed to the problem. Nonetheless, the consequences of climate change will affect everyone, and the U.S. is no exception. We should all be extremely concerned.

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It’s going to be a real scorcher. [Source]

The very real doom and gloom of climate change is already widely reported, albeit not to the degree that it perhaps should. Future citizens of the world, should society survive in its current form, will ultimately judge how we respond to this threat. I’m not here to write an entire post extolling the virtue of taking personal steps to reduce your own environmental impact while (much more importantly) calling for you to vote for representatives that will rein in large corporations and act against climate change, although you should certainly do those things. No, I’d rather focus on one solitary consequence of climate change and save that larger discussion for a different time.

Today’s blog post is about an interesting, plant breeding-centric revelation that I’ve stumbled across in my internet meanderings and I believe it is of the utmost importance that I share it with you. Speaking of which, you may want to grab a frothy glass of your favorite craft beer before you read the rest of this post. In fact, get an entire six-pack ready.

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Drink. It. In. [Source]

Climate change is coming for our beer. Yes, you read that correctly folks. A recent study published in Nature Plants that was conducted by Xie et al. has concluded that beer is likely to skyrocket in price due to growing conditions becoming inhospitable to barley as a consequence of climate change. Beer prices will likely increase drastically, and that is a direct result of the decreased availability of barley. Using a combination of different models, the researchers found that barley yield losses are going to range from 3% to 17% depending on the severity of the actual conditions we experience (i.e., how much we do to address climate change). Beer consumption will go down in many countries and the price increases are likely to be quite high. For example, Xie et al. predicted price increases of almost 200% in Ireland (better stockpile that Guinness).

 

Fig3
Changes in beer consumption and price under increasingly severe drought–heat events. Each column presents the results for the ten most affected countries in the regional aggregation of this study. a–d, Absolute change in the total volume of beer consumed. e–h, Change in beer price per 500 ml. i–l, Change in annual beer consumption per capita. The severity of extreme events increases from top to bottom. The length of the bars for each RCP shows average changes of all modeled extreme events years from 2010 to 2099, which are shown to the left of each bar, and the colors of the bars represent per-capita gross domestic product (see color scale). Whiskers indicate the 25th and 75th percentiles of all changes (n = 17, 77, 80 and 139 extreme events under RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, respectively; see percentage changes with full range for all main beer-consuming countries in Supplementary Figs. 26–28; absolute changes in Supplementary Figs. 30–32). (Adapted from Xie et al, 2018)

 

As you can see, the situation becomes worse when conditions are most intense (four different climate scenarios were tested). These findings are sure to sound quite terrifying to any fellow beer connoisseurs, since the beverage is usually loved for its affordability as well as its taste. If beer is as expensive, or more so, than wine and lower end liquor, its popularity will likely wane.

Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to barley. Most of the breweries that you’re familiar with rely on the crop. However, those of you that are on gluten-free diets may already be aware of one alternative that is near and dear to yours truly: sorghum! Yes, sorghum can be used in the brewing of beer, although beer made from sorghum is not very popular in the U.S. Those that have tasted it will note that the flavor is not comparable to most of the more popular beers with which we’re familiar.  While this is purely subjective, I happen to agree that it simply doesn’t have the necessary ‘bite’ that you expect in a good craft beer (I could never be accused of being a shill for “Big Sorghum” when it comes to my beer preferences). That isn’t to say sorghum beer doesn’t have popularity elsewhere, particularly in many African countries.

 

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Sorghum: The hero that we need, but not the hero that we deserve. Image Credit: N. Ace Pugh (Texas A&M University)

 

Nevertheless, sorghum and sorghum beer will likely need to become more attractive to producers and brewers, respectively, as the possible range for growing barley becomes more and more limited. While the beer it leads to is quite different in taste, sorghum can withstand drought and heat comparatively better. Whether or not the sorghum beer will become more palatable to U.S. consumers in the future is difficult to say. We simply don’t know. No matter how you slice it, a world that is inhospitable to barley is a world inhospitable to beer as most Americans currently know it. If the introduction of this blog post wasn’t enough to concern you, perhaps our impending beer crisis will.

Don’t Forget About the Plants

by Ace Pugh (@acepugh_)

Hello, dear reader, and welcome to my own personal corner of this blog. By now, I imagine you’ve already read some of my friends’ blog posts and enjoyed them very much. However, I’m sure that you were probably also asking a very important question: where’s the plants? We get to see some cool fish-dad related things, some information storage in cells, even some frickin’ laser beams; however, plants also need to have their time in the sun, both literally and figuratively. I’m here to give them that spotlight. I’m here to speak for the plants (but not for the trees specifically).

Now, it’s important to note that I’m primarily a plant breeder, so I think a good place to start is to give a quick introduction to my discipline. As a plant breeder, I use principles from many different disciplines in order to improve the genetic potential of plants (Thanks, National Association of Plant Breeders, for that definition). To be more specific, I work to improve plants that are prized by humans for their food, fiber, feed, fuel, etc. For example, nobody is going to spend time breeding poison ivy (or at least, nobody has yet) since it’s not of value to humans.  Thus, we focus our efforts on the crops that we care about such as corn, rice, apples, wheat, pecans, etc. By selecting the very best plant parents, we can attempt to produce progeny that are better (that produce more) than anything we had previously. We decide which material to advance based on a large set of factors including pest or disease resistance, drought tolerance, heat tolerance, yield, and many others.

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Yours truly, measuring the height of some sorghum plants. Sorghum is a very important food crop in Africa and Asia. It is also the best crop species ever (citation needed).

 

Interestingly, plant breeding is a process that is as old as recorded history. While today’s plant breeders use more sophisticated techniques, the first plant breeders were actually early farmers. Whenever a person first decided to keep seeds from one plant over another, and get rid of material that wasn’t as desirable, plant breeding was created as a practice. In fact, the crop species as we know them today are quite far removed from what they originally started as (take maize as an example, below). Centuries of selective breeding has created the crops that we now know and love.  It’s similar to how great movies are made; that is, multiple researchers with different perspectives are constantly working to improve these species, and only the very best material makes its fateful trip through the “editing room” that is the modern breeding program.

Maize-teosinte

Modern maize or corn (bottom) pictured alongside teosinte (top) and a hybrid between the two (middle). Teosinte is a wild species of maize that serves as an example of what the crop was like prior to centuries of artificial selection by humans. Notice that the modern corn appears to have a much higher deliciousness quotient than the teosinte. (Photo by John Doebley https://teosinte.wisc.edu/images.html)

 

Although that all sounds reasonably simple, it’s probably also becoming obvious that there’s quite a bit more complexity to what plant breeder do. While the basics I just outlined are all true, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that modern breeding programs are quite a bit more involved. As breeders, we now must possess a working knowledge in many different disciplines including plant pathology, entomology, statistics, soil science, agronomy, computer science, remote sensing, economics, and countless others. Sure, we can and should collaborate with other researchers whose expertise is in those areas, but we still need to know enough to understand which questions need to be asked. This works out very well for yours truly since I have a notably short attention span, and I’ve gotten to dip my toes into many different fields of study during my time as a graduate student. My passion, my raison d’être in fact, is to integrate devices and techniques from other disciplines into a breeding program, and I’ve focused most of my time and energy in pursuit of that goal. To be sure, this is a very exciting time to be in plant breeding, with remote sensing becoming an increasingly popular avenue by which plant breeders can increase the efficiency of their programs. Anyways, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I could go on about this for quite a while, so trust me when I say that you’ll get to hear quite a bit about remote sensing and high-throughput phenotyping from me in the months and years to come.

In summary, you can clearly see that plant breeding is a very broad discipline and encompasses many different others therein. You may also surmise that plants are the best thing ever, or that I’m very good at holding a measuring stick, or that popped teosinte would make a lousy snack food to eat while watching the latest Avengers movie (all three assumptions are likely correct). I’m honored that I am going to have a platform through which I can share some of my interests and comment on the latest research in my field. Together we’re going to have a lot of fun and, just maybe, learn something at the same time.