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?