When the world gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN climate convention COP26, the conversation had not yet added the “war in Europe” to the twin challenges of sustainability and biodiversity. Now, eight months later, in the Ukrainian port of Odessa, the President of the Council of the European Union, Charles Michel, described Ukrainian silos “full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export” blocked by the US war blockade. Russian Black Sea ports.
The independent data processor World Population Review estimates that Russia and Ukraine together account for 30% of the world’s wheat trade.
Today, global grain supplies are facing a double whammy not only from weather disruption, but also from wartime supply shortages. The food you eat, the food you consume, your food, and perhaps some of your favorite libations take a hit as the Russian invasion of Ukraine moves into its third month.
In a world that has changed everyone and everything, the people who are in the business of creating products that have entertained and sustained through a nearly three-year pandemic have the supply chain systems in place to stay agile in the midst of the conflict stirring.
It’s at this point that five-star Scotch whiskey master distiller Bill Lumsden of the Glenmorangie Company considers the big picture. “None of us knows how this terrible situation in Europe is going to end or unfold and that may have implications for the quality of life as we know it now.” Lumsden is director of distilling, whiskey creation and whiskey stocks for the 178-year-old distillery in the Scottish Highlands and is concerned about sustainability. Lumsden uses only Scotch barley, but he expects price pressures in the grain industry in general to eventually affect the raw material.
He is not facing the challenge alone. The Scotch whiskey industry as a whole ships 44 bottles of Scotch whiskey to 180 world markets every second.
What can be known, Lumsden says, is the inevitability of long-term climate change and the responsibility of the whiskey industry, still reliant on petrochemicals, to move decisively towards carbon-neutral production. “Barley will have to be grown differently. I can’t tell you what that shape is,” says Lumsden. “But there will not only be a reduction but an eradication in the use of fertilizers and pesticides.” As a result, he expects the current high yields in the field to change. “We may have to accept something a little less than that as we move towards more natural farming.”
To be sure, barley for malt whiskey is a tiny, exotic corner of the world’s agricultural challenges, but it illuminates for consumers of produce large and small the reality of a world in climate jeopardy.
Of greater importance, of course, is the absolute food value of grains and the complementary imperative to sustain and preserve the soils in which they are grown. At Washington State University’s pioneering bread lab in the lush Skagit Valley of the Pacific Northwest, world-renowned grain geneticist Steve Jones is about to widely commercialize a revolutionary perennial wheat called “Climate Blend.” He describes it as “the first highly diverse wheat population bred specifically for regenerative agriculture and climate chaos.”
Grasses of all kinds have the ability to trap carbon particles in their leaves and draw that carbon into the soil. A wheat plant that will return year after year promises not only soil conservation but continued carbon burial. The goal of a perennial wheat would be to minimize annual plantings, which stir up not only the soil but also the carbon that the plant had previously sequestered there. “The idea,” says Jones, “is to build soil as we build yields.”
Using the northwestern US as an example, he says weather losses continue to be significant. “In 2021, national spring wheat yields fell 41% from the previous year. In the Washington, Idaho, and Oregon region, which accounts for about 4.5 million acres, wheat yields were down 40% to 100% depending on farm and location. This resulted in the lowest production in 30 years. And the wheat that was harvested was generally of poor quality.”
“Climate Blend” has been trialed in several states and Jones expects it to be widely sold by this fall, under the name “Breadlab Grains” with its sales funding continued research and development.
Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, Guggenheim Fellow, Humanities Professor at the University of Georgia, and author of a powerful new book, takes a long-term view of global grain supplies in jeopardy. grain oceans. In examining the empire-building power of grain, Nelson sees a world where the strength of grain has propelled and sustained Russia, dating back to the 18th century.the strategies of the century of tsarina Catherine II.
Nelson says the writing has been on the wall for centuries in the run up to 21St. war of the century between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s master’s thesis, he says, “was on strategic resource reserves: grain, oil, lithium and palladium. And that was his master’s thesis. Nothing matters more to Putin, says Nelson. “Everybody talks about the KGB or the FSB or whatever. Do not! He is a geopolitical strategist who is in the business of monopolizing commodities that will serve Russia.”
Today, Nelson believes, Putin, the avid student of history, is determined to triangulate the market power of fossil fuels, natural resources, and abundant grain. “Ultimately, he is looking to make Russia great again.”