Tell the Truth, PBS, Data Show Climate Change is Not Harming Wine and Spirits Production

A story on PBS News Hour claims climate change is harming wine and spirits production. This is false. Data show that grape harvests, and the production of most of the main ingredients used to produce various types of hard liquors—corn, barley, rye, and wheat—have increased substantially during the recent period of modest warming.

The PBS News Hour story “How climate change is impacting the wine and spirits industries,” consists of an interview that PBS News Hour Chief Washington D.C. Correspondent, Geoff Bennett, conducted with Brian Freedman, author of a book titled “CRUSHED.” The book consists of anecdotal stories of the trials and travails of select vintners and distillers around the world, and how they have been harmed by extreme weather events in recent years, which Bennett attributes to climate change.

“From destructive wildfires to floods that threaten grape and grain harvests, climate change is altering the nature of wine and spirit production around the world,” says Bennet in the story’s introduction. “Food and travel writer Brian Freedman’s new book, ‘Crushed,’ captures how growers and producers are adapting to sudden and dramatic climate shifts.”

Bennett asks: “… in this book, you capture how climate change is affecting the industry, but you do it by looking through the eyes of the people who grow the grapes and who produce the wine. What did you find?”

To which Freedman replies, “I wanted to look at eight regions around the world and tell the stories of the producers of the growers who are really experiencing the impacts of climate change firsthand.”

Personal stories are often touching and informative, however, when discussing entire industries, in this case wine and spirits, the data indicate that just because some wine and spirit producers have had trouble sourcing their materials in recent years, doesn’t mean the industry as a whole is being harmed by climate change. In addition, linking climate change to particular weather events that have caused troubles for the select producers interviewed by Freedman is illegitimate, because climate and weather are different. There is no long term trend in extreme weather that is hampering the production of wine, whiskey, and gin’s staple crops.

Contrary to Bennett’s and Freedman’s assertions that recent weather events are signs that climate change forcing vintners and distillers to innovate and adapt to stay in business, numerous posts on Climate Realism, here, here, here, and here, for example, explain the difference between climate and weather, and refute claims that extreme weather events like wildfires and floods have become more frequent or severe during the recent period of modest warming.

One way to discover whether climate change is making it harder for the wine and spirit industries to flourish is to examine whether the constituent crops that serve as the key ingredients for their products have been declining during the Earth’s recent modest warming. As discussed in numerous Climate Realism posts, here and here, for instance, global wine production, consumption, and grape production have all increased in recent years. For grape production see the figure below from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Most spirits or hard liquors use corn, rye, barley, or wheat, or some combination thereof, as their main ingredient, after water of course. Even gin, although flavored or infused with juniper berries and often other botanicals, uses what are referred to as neutral spirits distilled from these core crops.

Data from the FAO show, whatever difficulties individual distillers might be having in sourcing their liquors, it isn’t due to a decline in cereal crops, because they have increased considerably since 1961, repeatedly setting new records for production. Data from the FAO show that between 1961 and 2020:

  • Corn production increased by nearly 467 percent;
  • Barley production grew by almost 117 percent;
  • Wheat production rose by more than 244 percent

Of the four crops from which spirits are commonly distilled, only rye saw a decline in production since 1961. However, the data indicate that this is due to a large decline in acreage devoted to growing rye, because rye yields have expanded by slightly more than 191 percent over the period.

In the end, individual alcohol producers, the farms or vineyards they source their adult beverages from, like businesses everywhere, suffer ups and downs: due to market conditions; labor issues; and a variety of other factors, including occasional unforeseen extreme weather. However, the data show there has been no long term increase in extreme weather events, while there has been a sustained increase in the crops used to make wine and various types of spirits. As such, contrary to the impression left by Bennett, Freedman, and PBS News Hour, both casual and regular imbibers can relax. Regardless of climate change, there is plenty of alcohol to go around and there is no indication this will change in the future.

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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