Widespread response to tackle climate change

Across the drinks world, producers are instigating regenerative and sustainable farming practices. Shay Waterworth reports on some of the vital initiatives taking place.

Over the past decade sustainability has gone from being a box-ticking exercise for drinks brands to an essential part of planning for future production and marketing. As an industry we started by saving turtles with the ban on plastic straws, which migrated to shaming the use of single-use plastic. From there, the focus turned to reducing carbon footprints and planting trees to offset emissions, and by the end of 2023 the industry is embracing its own environments. Farming and other production methods are now being analysed by brands not just for good PR, but for their own futures.

Diageo recently announced regenerative farming programmes being carried out in Scotland and Mexico. The main aim is to reduce carbon emissions, but it also intends to build supply resilience, particularly in Jalisco, Mexico – a region that is exposed to climate risks – by building soil health. Both programmes will provide greater resilience and knowledge for the farmers on how to farm and adapt their practices in response to climate change.

Agricarbon, one of the partners involved in the programmes, will help Diageo build the baselines of how much carbon the soil currently holds and track soil carbon changes over time across both geographic contexts.

Annie Leeson, chief executive and co-founder of Agricarbon, says: “Building our knowledge and understanding of the different raw materials across Diageo’s supply chain is key to reducing emissions and monitoring carbon changes in soils in different farming systems. Working with Diageo, we are pioneering large-scale assessments of soil carbon stocks.”

Staying in Scotland, there are Scotch producers carrying out similar due diligence to investigate more sustainable farming practices.

“Barley is the main ingredient of single malt Scotch whisky, yet there is no law that states that it must be grown and harvested in Scotland,” says Adam Hannett, head distiller at Bruichladdich Distillery.

“As a consequence, barley is widely treated as a commodity – often imported from outside the country and bought at the lowest price for the greatest yield.

“At Bruichladdich, we trace our barley from farm to glass – seeking flavour, not yield. We are acutely aware of our part in the wider agricultural industry and our responsibility to not only support the farmers who grow our vital raw ingredient, but also to promote soil health and nurture the land.

“Our Barley Exploration series looks at the impact different barley varieties and growing methods have on the final flavour of our spirit.

“Beyond the pursuit of flavour alone, the latest vintages celebrate our commitment to our farming partners, as well as our values around total traceability, provenance, and the purest expression of terroir.”

Farming responsibilities

In Ayrshire, just south of Glasgow, Lochlea Distillery is in touch with its farming responsibilities and reflects this through its annual releases. The Highlands distillery has just released the third in a series of four whiskies representing the seasons. Fallow, the latest edition, celebrates autumn.

After nearly five months of barley growth on the farm – followed by harvest in September – the team at Lochlea plant cover crops of mustard and radish to open up the soil through winter, while also creating a leafy canopy to help prevent soil erosion.

This cover crop is then grazed by sheep for a month before being integrated back into the soil.

Straw bales – which are a by-product of growing barley – are provided to neighbouring farmers for them to use as bedding for their cattle. Some of this comes back as manure, which is then spread back on to the barley fields in the winter before ploughing.

Lochlea owner and farmer Neil McGeoch says: “Fallow season within our farming calendar is a vital time of year for us to regenerate the land ready for our barley to grow well in the spring and summer. This release is so important to us, as it gives us a chance to tell the story of the farm and explain some of our sustainable practices.”

Earlier this year Drinks International visited a farm in Normandy, north west France, with Parisian bar Little Red Door. The bar, currently number six in The World’s 50 Best Bars, had a farm-to-glass menu called Evergreen, which celebrated the produce of France through its drinks. One drink, Pepper, used the peppers grown at Gonne Girls farm. It was founded in 2019 by Claire Wills-Diquet and Gaelle Bonnieux and specialises in a farming technique known as the no-till method. This involves a regular rotation of livestock on specific plots of land in order to regenerate the soil which had previously been over-farmed.

Wills-Diquet says: “One of the biggest releases of carbon into our atmosphere is the disruption of soil during farming. This is why the no-till method makes a lot of sense, because it’s all about nurturing the soil and keeping the carbon in the ground as much as possible. Our main aim is to create a profitable, small, diverse farm which regenerates our soil.”

On the farm, Wills-Diquet and her team have a dozen horses which they look after on behalf of local riders. Their main role in the process is to eat away the thick layer of grass and fertilise the soil. After a couple of weeks the horses are moved to a new patch and the farm’s 1,000 hens are let loose on the freshly mowed area left behind. The chickens, as well as producing eggs for the region, further fertilise the soil while simultaneously turning it gently with their feet, preparing it for vegetable production.

The process doesn’t use tractors or heavy machinery and therefore the amount of produce harvested per square metre is significantly higher than traditional commercial farms. Obviously the labour is far more demanding, and it’s less profitable than industrial farms, however, the work of Diageo and other industry leaders to scale up these concepts is progressive and proactive. And while we still don’t want turtles to choke on plastic straws, it’s clear to see how the industry’s relationship with sustainability has evolved over the past 10 years – hopefully this trajectory continues.