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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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April 14, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


Global Hops Shortage, Local Opportunities

Although the recent worldwide shortage of hops for beer-making has had a significant impact on small-scale brewers, local farmers are smiling!


Jon Steinman


The current crisis of heightened food prices has been a slow-motion wreck in the making, however, only in the past year have prices risen exponentially.


Immense challenges now face the world's poorest, and riots and quarrels are becoming commonplace in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.


A number of factors have led to this latest global crisis; they include the conversion of land to produce biofuels instead of food, the rising price of fuel, and the diminishing reserves of food due to increasing populations and poorly designed global food distribution systems.


The writing has been on the wall for quite some time and numerous alternatives do exist to our apparently faulty globalized system of food production and trade; however, such alternatives have not yet received widespread attention. Perhaps it's more realistic to suggest that new models of food production will instead be more attractive in times of crisis? Whether it's social or genetic, we do seem to be better at responding to crises than preparing for them. What response then can we predict will come out of this latest global food crisis?


One example to look to is the recent global supply shortage of hops - a key flavouring ingredient in beer production. Some inspiring outcomes have indeed come out of this circumstance.


"The hop world is upside down," says Ralph Olson of Hopunion – a producer and distributor of hop products based in Yakima, WA. Olson is referring to a number of quirks in the industry that have contributed to the current global hops shortage.


In 1986, world acreage planted to hops was 215,600. In 1992 it rose to 236,000, and in 2006 plummeted to 123,000.


Why such a difference?


As Olson puts it, 1992 levels should have been at 160,000-170,000 to meet demand. Instead, a glut of hops hit the market, and created excess inventory and hence lower prices. Farmers pulled out of the industry as prices were often below the cost of production. Then in 2007, weather events around the globe exacerbated the problem of supply. In the US, where 25% of the world's hops are grown, bad weather was the culprit. In Europe, it was hail. In Australia, it was drought.


Overall, these influences have led to the global hops supply being at 10-15% below demand.


This scenario plays itself out in almost every sector of the food system.


Just as global agribusiness and food producers have cushioned themselves from such economic crises, so too have industrial brewers. Their immense purchasing power allows them to literally purchase hops before they even exist on a farm, and quality and variety is not important.


Craft brewers on the other hand are now pinched with fewer choices and increased prices. Brewers have responded by reformulating recipes and concocting new beers altogether, and many are now looking to local farmers for help.


Rebecca Kneen is an organic craft brewer with Crannòg Ales located in Sorrento B.C. and she is thrilled with the opportunities now available since this latest hop shortage.


Kneen is a hop enthusiast, and in 2002 received funding to create a manual titled "Small Scale & Organic Hops Production". Kneen is now receiving a wave of interest in her manual from those wishing to see an increase in the availability of local hops. "We've had brewers who have been actively scouting their local farmers saying, look, I need hops, can you grow them?" says Kneen.


Similar to the more agriculturally diverse farms and regions of yesteryear, hops too were once grown all across the country. Similar to other food crops, hops production became globalized and specialization (and subsidies) was directed to American and European farmers. Canadian hops disappeared.


Kneen's hop-growing manual may be a telling example of the direction in which the current global food crisis may take us. With rising prices of food and fossil fuels, climate change impacts and a growing interest in biofuels, perhaps we will see more of these local farming opportunities arise along with the necessary manuals!


Accompanying the many shortfalls of the globalized food system is the loss of diversity in the foods available to us. The responses to the hops shortage may also be suggesting that a resurgence in flavour is before us.


"Most excitingly for me, craft brewers are realizing they're not hop-secure," says Kneen. "So they're saying, maybe we should work with local farmers to make sure we have a hop supply and gee, while we're at it, maybe they can grow this new variety that I've heard about or an old variety that nobody's growing anymore."


While more diversity in food varieties can already be found at farmers' markets than at conventional supermarkets, perhaps a global food crisis will encourage more than the one type of banana, one type of broccoli, and two types of cucumbers currently available on supermarket shelves!


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (





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