Alexis Wagner (25) is a bioprocess engineer who recently finished a master’s degree in Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge, where she was a Chevening Scholar, focussing on agricultural supply chain sustainability. Back in Canada, she is now the assistant brewmaster at Mill Street Brewery in Toronto.
Barley, hops, yeast – A brewer’s perspective on sustainability
A brewer may not seem like a typical agri-food producer at first glance. But crafting great beer requires carefully grown and selected barley and hops. Every litre of beer brewed requires around 0.3kg of malted grain and around 6 liters of water. As the beer industry continues to grow, it’s more important than ever that we ensure a secure, sustainable supply of high-quality ingredients. While we use Canadian malt where possible, our specialty malt comes from as far afield as Germany; likewise, the majority of our organic hops come from New Zealand. In a global supply chain, what happens when supplies run short, transport routes are interrupted, or weather fluctuations lead to variations in material specifications? Even small changes in the raw materials affect efficiency and flavour, and these challenges will only intensify as global average temperatures rise.
The Youth Ag-Summit is the first event I’ve seen which specifically brings international youth together to talk about such key issues. Networking gives us the opportunity to understand the situation for agri-food producers in other countries, and maintain these global connections as we progress in our careers. I’m very keen to see how other youth working in agri-food production balance being an advocate for sustainability whilst being in a junior position.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what a sustainable supply chain looks like, for both producers and consumers. In university, I volunteered with several Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives, experimented with fermentation, and ‘WWOOFed’ abroad for a summer. During the cultural exchange I helped on farms throughout the Scottish Borders, England, and southern France. It was gratifying to be so involved in the production, but also exhausting. A memory which stuck with me was hearing passers-by commenting on produce being sold outside the farm: “There’s no point buying this here – it’s cheaper at the supermarket!” That was really hurtful: you’ve worked so hard and someone’s not willing to spend an extra 30p to buy a carrot. It made me think about the entire food system, from input to production, to consumption.
I’m very aware of what I’m putting my money behind now. I make a conscious effort to shop at local markets, because I believe local production builds food security and resilience. Food waste is also a big problem in developed countries, fuelled in part by huge portion sizes and bulk buying. However, you can cook in bulk and freeze; save leftovers; preserve seasonal fruits; even ferment vegetables. It sounds extreme, but fermentation is fast becoming a food trend!
On the other end of the spectrum, food insecurity persists in Canada, particularly in remote areas. Further, people who are undernourished don’t always recognize it. In northern communities, residents face exorbitant food prices, and they might only have access to a corner store instead of a full grocery store. Likewise in the island province of Newfoundland and Labrador, 90% of produce is imported, meaning fruit and vegetables are expensive and lack freshness. The price and availability of fruit and vegetables has led to diets that cause the province to have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country. Nutritional awareness is intertwined with food insecurity. We need to educate consumers about health, low impact diets, and encourage them to think about the impact of what they’re buying. If we get that right, we’ll be on the right track.