A “hop”, skip and a jump to effective climate policy: what can a pint of beer reveal about UK food security?

Robyn Dennis, Intern

As we enter spring and many Brits flock to pub beer gardens to enjoy the nicer weather, one thing that won’t be considered is how eco-friendly a pint is. The Great British pint made headlines this month over efforts to create “super-hop” variants in the drink that can withstand climate change threats. Researchers at Kent University are working to isolate drought-resistant genes to create more climate-resilient hop varieties, in a project funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  

Reports on the relationship between beer quality and climate change are by no means new; headlines have cropped up for several years on the effect of higher temperatures on the declining quality and quantity of hops, as well as its ability to engage climate sceptics with the policy area. Yet, isolated research into the longevity of a pint of beer represents much more than engagement efforts or a headline-grabber.  

Investment into a savoured British classic signifies a burgeoning awareness of the urgency for Westminster to embrace holistic, adaptive solutions to climate-affected supply chains. As opposed to singular investment projects that concentrate on home-grown production, industry leaders increasingly recognise the need for an overhaul of our entire approach to food supplies in the country, including how we might tackle domestic supply challenges.  

Within the drinks industry, as public demand has shifted to sustainable strategies, so too have brands sought to match an authentic environmental approach. As many of the largest players move to reduce emissions upstream, brewers are turning their focus to processes such as regenerative agriculture to maintain supply. Energy efficiency is also a key target; in 2021, for instance, Molson Coors became the first major UK brewer to switch to 100% renewable electricity, sourced from 22 Yorkshire wind turbines.

Projects such as the “super-hop” variants, then, are indicative of a much larger, precarious balance between maintaining the demand of nutrition for a growing population and adapting to the long-term effects of climate change for future food security in the UK. And it is a balance that policymakers are teetering on. The most recent government plan for climate change adaptation, the National Adaptation Plan (NAP3), has been criticised for lack of a decisive, long-term strategy in food policy. At a recent Atticus sector roundtable with Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed MP, industry leaders echoed this, calling for urgent attention from policymakers to invest in sustainable solutions for increasingly volatile global food supply chains. 

The impacts of climate change on UK food security came to the forefront of public consciousness last year, when adverse weather conditions in southern Europe compounded food shortages across British supermarkets. In the UK, rising temperatures, droughts, flooding, and impacts of pests and diseases are continuing to burden domestic food production efforts. In 2022, UK wheat fields dropped by 40% because of heavy rainfall and droughts.

In its 2021 UK food security report, the Government concluded climate change and biodiversity loss are among the biggest medium to long-term risks to UK domestic food production, alongside other factors, including soil degradation and water quality.  Food security experts warn that the likelihood of similar shortages this year are “alarmingly high”and have criticised the Government for a lack of a long-term plan into addressing a potential food availability crisis. 

Recently, the Government appear to have responded more proactively to industry pressure. Last November, Rishi Sunak announced the launch of a new science centre, focused on climate resilient crop growth, which will work in partnership with various NGOs, Somalia and the UAE. Little has been announced since this statement, however. Meanwhile, an open government inquiry titled “A Code Red for Humanity?” has called for submissions over the UK’s response to security threats posed by climate change, including how climate change might affect the UK’s access to food, and how funding can be targeted towards food supply adaptation.  

Despite this apparent action, farming and food professionals attest to continued setbacks in handling climate change-related problems from national leadership. Industry cites poor enforcement of current legislation as a primary reason, with unclear or ineffective education and legal enforcement of UK climate policies post-Brexit. 

Indeed, policy advisers such as the Climate Change Committee - the UK’s independent adviser on tackling climate change - position educational strategies and upskilling land managers on environmental land management as a key focus area to prepare UK supply. In their Sixth Carbon Budget, published in 2020, the advisory body has also called for low-carbon farming practice promotion and environmental incentives for food producers as necessary policies in a food system transition.

At present, it is clear that such isolated research efforts that have dominated climate news in the domestic sphere – including towards climate-resilient beer – will not satisfy the pressing challenges faced by the predicted annual, and future, wave of food security issues. Rather, a significant and sustainable shift is needed to ensure the UK’s food security, with robust intervention required by the government into upskilling labour, environmental incentives and farming practice reform. Such investment is essential to shift food security from a novelty headline to a central and indispensable policy in the next Parliamentary term.

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