Scientists averting global beer shortage

Genetic advances in barley overcome climate impacts, TropAg hears

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Carlsberg Research Laboratory vice president Birgitte Skadhauge explains the brewing dilemma and how science is tackling it. Picture - Sally Cripps.

Carlsberg Research Laboratory vice president Birgitte Skadhauge explains the brewing dilemma and how science is tackling it. Picture - Sally Cripps.

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There has been plenty in the news about the impact of climate change on the way we live our lives but an international study has found it could lead to a beer shortage.

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There has been plenty in the news about the impact of climate change on the way we live our lives - battling temperature extremes, more cyclones and storm surges, and subsequent impacts on health - but an international study has found it could lead to a beer shortage.

Speaking at the TropAg 2019 conference in Brisbane this week, Carlsberg Research Laboratory vice president Birgitte Skadhauge shared results of an international study that showed barley yields could decrease by, at best 3 per cent and at worst up to 17pc, as barley growing locations became hotter and drier.

"This is quite depressing news - it would mean less money for farmers and the quality of beer could be affected," Ms Skadhauge, who had flown in from Denmark for the conference, said.

"What we see when we have droughts or extreme heat is that barley has lower yields, smaller kernels and a lower starch quality.

"Poorer starch quality leads to less tasty beer."

Thankfully though, the work of her institute and other plant scientists across the globe who have been exploring the cereal's genomes for new brewing traits, means this crisis may be averted.

A major milestone was reached in 2017 when scientists sequenced barley's genome. Given that it's roughly twice the size of the human genome and took a team of 77 international scientists 10 years to complete, this was no mean feat.

It means they now know which genes control various traits so that varieties can be developed that will be more tolerant of drought and heat.

Developing more resilient varieties is also work that the University of Queensland's Centre for Crop Science is undertaking and senior research fellow Lee Hickey said gene editing, a breeding method that involves making small changes to a plant's genetic code, was particularly promising.

"We're able to make varieties that are drought-resistant more efficiently than ever before," he said, news that beer lovers worldwide will be toasting.

Related: Scientists hop into genetic beer brewing breakthrough

Meanwhile, Ms Skadhauge told TropAg that work was also being done on identifying mutant breeding lines to eliminate traits that gave beer an "off" flavour after it had been stored for a week at 30 degrees.

Together with other work on a trait that gives out a cooked cabbage taste in the malting process, all these innovations are being 'stacked' into the latest barley grains.

A screening process is also being applied for barley varieties that are more drought and heat tolerant, which has found ones grown in Russia, Portugal and Spain are giving good yields.

For the pale ale fans, the Carlsberg laboratory is also looking at climate resistant rice, taking core samples from Chinese paddies that are up to 8000 years old.

"It might be a long shot but we hope to find traits that have been lost in modern rice that we can reintroduce, using modern breeding techniques, thus helping face the challenges of today," Ms Skadhauge said.

Covering all its bases, Carlsberg is also working to reduce its water and carbon footprints in the environmental sphere, while on the social side, has zero irresponsible drinking and zero accidents caused by alcohol by 2030 written into its charter.

Savings to date include 20pc carbon reduction and 9pc water efficiency, including a 50pc reduction in water usage at its breweries, which is equivalent to 8112 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Environmentally beneficial packaging has been developed whereby cans are glued together with a carry handle, which has already saved 1200 tonnes of plastic.

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