Scotland prides itself as a nation of food and drink producers, and, despite being small on a global scale, we are punching well above our weight at the industrial and research levels. Recent figures from Scotland Food and Drink, a not-for-profit organisation created to guide food and drink companies of all sizes towards increased profitability, reported that over the period 2007-2012 food and drink has proved to be one of the country’s strongest exports achieving a 52 per cent increase. A large part of this and subsequent increases has been the whisky industry. Current data from the Scotch Whisky Association shows overseas sales of £4.3 billion, which represents about 85 per cent of Scottish food and drink exports and nearly a quarter of the British total. It is clear that our iconic product is not just delicious and good for you in measured doses (or should that be gills) but a cornerstone of the Scottish economy.
Underpinning whisky production is barley and the requirement to ensure its supply to the industry is crucial. Barley has a long history of use by humans. Indeed, it formed a major part of the Roman gladiators’ diet and contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii – literally, “barley men”. At the James Hutton Institute we have our own hordearii who are battling at the frontiers of science to ensure the Scotch whisky industry’s supply of barley is both sustainable and of a higher yield and quality. Furthermore we are developing technologies to ensure that this high quality is maintained through to the consumer and that authenticity is assured.
Geneticists at the James Hutton Institute led by Professor Robbie Waugh are part of an international consortium that sequenced the complete set of genes in barley. This landmark event, part funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS), means we can now identify key genes that determine barley yield and quality as well as responses to its environment such as drought, flooding, pests and disease. This is particularly important for Scotland since recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that we will experience a general uplift in average temperature and also an increased risk of extreme events, like rain, drought and high temperatures, which could lead to more variation in crop yield and quality.
Genetic profiling of a large number of different barley varieties has revealed there are large sections of the chromosomes that are inherited as a complete block of genes, i.e. they do not recombine during breeding. Modifying patterns of recombination would break up these blocks and may well lead to better combinations to generate improved varieties for the future.
Allied with this barley genomic research is a portfolio of RESAS, EU and industry-funded research to study and formulate strategies to improve the efficiency with which barley takes up and uses nitrogen, a key component for proteins and enzymes. This is important for the whisky industry’s sustainability as there is a move towards sustainable agricultural practices and reducing the use of mineral, non-renewable fertilisers, which are large contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
During the whisky-making process barley is used to create malt, the sugar source for fermentation. Malting is controlled germination of large bulks of grain to provide maximum conversion of starch to fermentable sugars with minimal loss to root and shoot growth and is halted by kilning (drying). There are two barley crops grown in Scotland – spring and winter. The former, and most common, provides the distiller with a greater amount of spirit per tonne of grain whilst the latter provides the farmer with a higher tonnage per hectare of land. Ideally the whisky industry would like the best of both worlds and this is exactly what Dr Bill Thomas, a cereal geneticist at the James Hutton Institute, is working to achieve. Dr Thomas leads IMPROMALT, a project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (with input from RESAS) and Home Grown Cereals Authority with inputs from barley breeding companies, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain. The project ultimately aims to combine spring malting quality with winter yield attributes. Dr Thomas’s group are employing genetic profiling technologies, just like the TV programme CSI, to select progeny with the spring quality genes in an otherwise winter genetic background from crosses between the two types.
This research effort cannot be more timely as the Scotch whisky industry is undergoing a major period of expansion, with approximately £2bn committed over the next few years and many new distilleries planned. Estimates suggest this would double the amount of barley currently used, so the effective bottles of whisky produced per hectare of land needs to increase to ensure that much of this growth is captured by Scottish agriculture.
The research led by the James Hutton Institute, in partnership with funders such as the Scottish Government and key stakeholders in the Scotch whisky industry, will ensure that we will meet that demand.
• Professor Derek Stewart is leader of the Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilisation Theme at the James Hutton Institute, and worked on this article with Dr Bill Thomas www.hutton.ac.uk/cpu