Whisky in a Changing Climate

IN

Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, opens its doors to the UN Climate Change Conference from the 31st of October to the 12th of November. The event is said to be the most crucial climate conference yet, as world leaders gather to discuss action plans for tackling the climate emergency.

As a business, we at Bruichladdich are optimistic that we can play a part in climate change solutions. Our hope in offering our opinion here is not to incite fear or to add to a growing list of sacrifices. In fact, the opposite is true. While the issues are pressing and very real, we are confident that our collective future can include whisky! Here are our transparent perspectives on whisky and the climate.

Three activities account for the majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; energy, agriculture and transport [i]. As a product that is distilled from an arable crop and then shipped around the world, all these activities have relevance to single malt Scotch whisky. Like every industry, we have a responsibility to reduce these emissions. Net zero carbon targets (where emissions are reduced to a minimum and then offset to reach carbon neutrality) have been set by the UK government (by 2050), the Scottish government (by 2045) and the Scotch Whisky Association (by 2040) [ii].

In order to achieve these targets, the Scotch industry is in the process of adopting new and innovative technologies that address their energy needs, some with the support of UK Government funding [iii]. Some initiatives like that of Glenfiddich’s biogas fleet prove transport is also on the agenda [iv]. But what of agriculture? Where is it currently placed, and what are we doing to support the agricultural community in reducing their emissions and nurturing the fertility of their land?

DOES AGRICULTURE MATTER?

Modern agriculture in the UK was designed to help feed a booming population after the first and second World War. The productivity of the land was of utmost importance and the introduction of artificial inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides helped to deliver the growing demands of a hungry nation. Some would argue that we’ve gone too far now. That we have developed an over-reliance on chemical inputs that promote maximum extraction without counterbalancing this by nurturing the soil beneath our feet.

Over 1bn bottles of Scotch whisky are exported each year [v].  The production of this quantity of whisky is reliant on the steady supply of cereals, meaning the whisky industry has a significant influence on the supply chain. When we rely on this supply chain, it is in our interests to protect its longevity.

Single malt whisky relies on a steady supply of barley alone. Asking a nation of arable growers to plant a monoculture is not always in the best interest of their land. Mixed farms, that combine arable farming with raising livestock, will rotate their grazing livestock onto these lands and plant grass in a rotation or leave fields fallow. Farms which support a greater variety of crops in a rotation will incorporate more crops, like oats, clover or diverse herbal leys, carrots, and oil-seed rape. These are all hugely important to put nutrients back into the soil, to improve soil structure and manage nitrogen content – all of which are beneficial to output. Organic and biodynamic farms often adopt crop rotation, with other more complex systems layered on top to ensure that the entire ecosystem on the farm is healthy; from micro-organisms to pollinators and birdlife, and any livestock they rear.

If we, as a single malt industry, only demand barley and we only demand the highest yield of alcohol from that barley, and we do not set parameters for the health of the farm or for flavourful crops, farmers will not grow for them. In order to survive, farms will only grow what is dictated by their market. We must change the market and change the commodity system to encourage a more holistic system that supports the nutrition of the soil. Without nutritious soil, there will be no crops, and there will be no whisky.

Farming systems will not become ‘green’ overnight. They need the support of the industries that buy their produce, and they deserve for those industries to educate themselves on the realities and challenges they face. The farming industry in the UK contends with incredibly difficult circumstances. They are an ageing population that faces lack of labour both on the farm and in processing plants between themselves and supermarket shelves [vi]. They are often not in ownership of the land they steward, so the risk of investing in long-term systems and reducing inputs without a guaranteed marketplace for those crops or conditions is too great. There’s the political landscape and a fresh new challenge of productive land being purchased for the planting of carbon sequestering forestation projects [vii]. Each one of these challenges triggers a lengthy and complex back and forth. So where do we, in the whisky industry, start?

WHAT CAN THE INDUSTRY DO ABOUT IT?

Single malt whisky is a luxury product that essentially up-cycles an arable crop to be worth more than it would without being ‘manufactured’. The price tag of each bottle should help support everyone throughout that process, from farmers to maltsters, into the distillery and into their local community. By choosing the bottles of whisky that work harder to spread that value fairly, you are voting with your wallet and speeding up the transition into more holistic ecosystems that consider the good of people and planet.

Focusing on agriculture, we believe that distillers can:

  • Integrate more progressive barley buying into annual production requirements – this could include organic and biodynamic barley, ancient varietals that help keep genetic diversity in circulation or buying locally grown or conventional barley that uses minimal inputs.
  • Tolerate risk and failure – by treating farmers like partners, not suppliers, distillers can help to improve the security of growing specific crops. The parameters for traditional malting grains can be relaxed and long-lasting relationships with guarantees for riskier grains e.g. organically grown, can be put in place. Being part of the process where trials are run and selected, and considering a multi-pronged approach to benefits for farmer, maltster and distiller will improve conditions for everyone across the supply chain.
  • Invest and support academic institutions to breed and trial varietals with updated KPIs – barley is only bred according to the KPIs set out at the beginning of the academic project. Ensuring that those KPIs are set for the farmer as well as the maltster and distiller, and adjusting ‘yield’ targets to mean agronomic yield instead of alcoholic yield ensures the land is being used productively and conscientiously.
  • Use our influence for the benefit of agriculture – we all have a part to play in learning about the solutions that can be put in place and approaching those with an objective, no-blame view. We have a duty to rebuild the commodity system that is currently in place and that can only be done by listening to all of the voices within it, and being advocates for each.
  • Increase transparency and accountability – we don’t need to achieve perfection overnight but we do need to try. At Bruichladdich, we are often frustrated by how slow our own progress is. The complexity, expense and scale of what we are aiming for is frequently overwhelming but we continue to communicate on what we have done, and should share more often about what we haven’t managed yet. It is this sharing that can help drive conversation towards change.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY…

We have a collective duty as an industry to create the demand for the elements outlined above. Many small-scale distilleries are already playing their part, and indeed larger distillers already fund academia through membership of certain organisations (like the Scotch Whisky Research Institute), but in order to rebuild the commodity system to put the farmer and their land first, we require the weight of the whole industry putting action behind these touchpoints. We cannot expect the farming community to change their entire business model without us.

 

ENDNOTES

[i] Source – Sector by sector: Where do global greenhouse gas emissions come from? https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-by-sector

[ii] Source – Scotch Whisky Commits to Reach Net-Zero by 2040 with Launch of New Sustainability Strategy

https://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/newsroom/scotch-whisky-commits-to-reach-net-zero-by-2040-with-launch-of-new-sustainability-strategy/

[iii] Source – Government pours £9m into distilleries to fund eco-friendly improvements https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/highlands-islands/2986423/green-distilleries/

[iv] Source – Glenfiddich whisky lorries in Scotland to run on ‘green biogas’ made from distillery leftovers https://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/glenfiddich-whisky-lorries-in-scotland-to-run-on-green-biogas-made-from-distillery-leftovers-3324649

[v] Source – Scotch Whisky Association: Facts and Figures  https://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/insights/facts-figures/

[vi] Source – Farmers to slash food production after worker shortage causes ‘unprecedented’ waste https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/brexit-food-supply-shortage-farming-b1943328.html

[vii] Source – Carbon credits must not be pulled under the feet of farmers  https://www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk/news/19664485.carbon-credits-must-not-pulled-feet-farmers/

PLUS An interesting read on the current benefits of farmers in reference to the environment. More to come from us on that one: https://www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk/news/19664297.climate-change-cop26-trees-v-cows-policies-miss-point/

 

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