When the world gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN climate convention COP26, the conversation had not yet added “war in Europe” to the twin challenges of sustainability and biodiversity. Now, eight months later, in the Ukrainian port of Odesa, the President of the Council of the European Union, Charles Michel, described the Ukrainian silos “full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export” blocked by the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports during the war.
Independent data analyst World Population Review estimates that Russia and Ukraine together account for 30% of the global wheat trade.
Today, global grain supplies are facing the dual impact of not only climate disruption but also wartime supply shortages. The food you eat, the food your food consumes, and perhaps some of your favorite drinks are all affected as the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches its third month.
In a world that has changed everything and everyone, people who are in the business of creating products that have entertained and sustained during a nearly three-year pandemic are relying on the supply chain systems they have to remain agile amidst the turmoil of conflict.
It is at this point that five-star Scotch whiskey master distiller Bill Lumsden of the Glenmorangie Company considers the landscape. “None of us knows how this dire situation in Europe will end or play out and this could have implications for the quality of life as we know it now.” Lumsden is director of distillation, whiskey breeding and whiskey stocks for the 178-year-old distillery in the Scottish Highlands and is concerned about sustainability. Lumsden uses only Scotch barley, but expects price pressures across the grain industry to affect the commodity.
He is not facing the challenge alone. The Scotch whiskey industry in general ships 44 bottles of Scotch whiskey to 180 world markets every second.
What is known, says Lumsden, is the inevitability of climate change in the long term and the responsibility of the whiskey industry, still dependent on petrochemicals, to move decisively towards carbon neutral production. “Barley will have to be grown in a different way. I can’t say which way it is,” says Lumsden. “But there will be not only a reduction, but also an eradication of 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 agriculture.”
Barley for malt whiskey is a tiny, exotic corner of the world’s agricultural challenges, to be sure, but it illustrates for consumers of products large and small the reality of a world in climate danger.
Of greater importance, of course, is the sheer food value of grains and the companion imperative of sustaining and preserving the soils where they are grown. At Washington State University’s pioneering Bread Lab in the lush Skagit Valley of the Pacific Northwest, 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 created specifically for regenerative agriculture and climate chaos.”
Grasses of all types have the ability to trap carbon particles in their leaves and pull that carbon into the ground. A wheat plant that will come back year after year promises not only soil conservation but continuous 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 previously sequestered by the plant. “The idea,” says Jones, “is to build soil as we increase yields.”
Using the Northwest as an example, he says climate losses remain significant. “In 2021, national spring wheat yields were down 41% from the previous year. In the Washington, Idaho and Oregon region, which accounts for about 4.5 million acres, wheat yields have dropped from 40% to 100%, depending on the farm and location. This resulted in the lowest production in 30 years. And the wheat harvested was often of poor quality.”
The “Climate Blend” is in trials in several states and Jones expects it to be sold widely this fall under the name “Breadlab Grains” and its sales will fund continued research and development.
Taking the long-term view of endangered global grain supplies is historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, Guggenheim Fellow, professor of humanities at the University of Georgia and author of a powerful new book, Oceans of Grains. Examining the empire-building power of grain, Nelson sees a world where the strength of this commodity has fed and sustained Russia since the 18th century.º Czarina Catherine II’s century strategies.
Nelson says writing has been on the wall for centuries in the run-up to the 21stStreet war of the century between Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s master’s thesis, he says, “was about strategic resource reserves: grain and oil and lithium and palladium. And that was his master’s thesis. There’s nothing Putin cares about anymore, says Nelson. “Everyone talks about the KGB or the FSB or whatever. No! He is a geopolitical strategist who is trying to monopolize crucial 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.”