Pushing the Boundary of Barley and Beer to Mars

Published on: 17:31PM Dec 13, 2017

By Doyle Lentz:  Rolla, North Dakota

“Martian Brew” sounds like the latest release from a trendy microbrewery—but if Budweiser has its way, it could become a reality.

That’s one conclusion to draw from the news that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the maker of Budweiser, wants to study the germination of barley in space. It put 20 barley seeds on a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station, scheduled to launch this month from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

They’ll grow in orbit for about 30 days. Then they’ll return to earth, perhaps with lessons about how to make extraterrestrial beer.

“We want to be part of the collective dream to get to Mars,” Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques told Time magazine. “When the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there.”

That’s a nice thought. I wish Budweiser well and hope our future astronauts get to drink beer in space and on other planets.

Meanwhile, I find that it’s hard enough to grow barley here on earth.

My family runs a fourth-generation family farm in North Dakota, close to the Canadian border. This spring, we’ll grow our 120th crop: a mix of wheat, canola, and soybeans—as well as malt barley, which will find its way into Bud, Bud Lite, and Corona, per the contracts we’ve already signed for 2018.

We devote about 10 percent of our land to barley, but barley is such a complicated crop that it requires about 60 percent of our time management. When people ask why we bother, I joke that we’re a bunch of stubborn German Americans. This is what our ancestors did in the Old World and it’s what we do in the New World. We can’t help ourselves.

The truth is that we work in an ideal soil and climate for barley, appreciate its value as a rotation crop, and enjoy the challenge.

It takes a lot of work. And it takes a lot of science.  Some crops germinate in the field. Barley is the only major commodity that must germinate after harvest. This means that we have to deliver our barley in a living state, keeping it viable for months on end in a climate-controlled environment. When corn farmers sell, they have to keep track of just two factors: weight and moisture. We have to keep track of ten.

It’s like we’re having babies out here all the time.

At the malt house, the barley soaks in water and finally germinates. Then it roasts and dries and eventually becomes a vital ingredient in beer.

Maybe Budweiser will figure out how to do this on Mars, where the gravity is about 40 percent of Earth’s. It brings to mind “The Martian,” the 2015 movie that stars Matt Damon as a latter-day Robinson Crusoe. Stranded on the red planet, he grows potato plants to survive.

On my farm, we’re less concerned with science fiction than science reality. Our partners at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota dedicate a significant amount of science-based research to barley growers like me so we have access to tools that allow us to sustainably grow the barley our customers are looking for.

Americans plant about two-and-a-half million acres of barley each spring, mostly in the dry and cool weather of North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. About half of it becomes animal feed and half goes into beer.

Unfortunately, not a single acre of this comprises GMO barley—a decades-old technology that would make our farming much easier.

Around the world, genetic modification is a tool that has allowed farmers to grow more corn, soybeans, and sugar beets on less land than ever before. This helps conservation and keeps prices down for consumers.

But not for barley. Its annual volume simply isn’t large enough to justify the huge costs of research, development, and regulatory compliance associated with GMOs.

Beer in space, however, would be even more expensive. After accounting for the specialized equipment as well as the sky-high launch prices for orbital cargo, Time estimates that it would cost “a couple hundred bucks a swallow.”

I like beer, but that’s too much for my taste. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put these resources into the innovative technology traits that would help barley resist disease and make the most of nutrients?

So I’ll watch the new space race in beer with interest—and also hope we will invest in the proven technologies that can benefit both barley farmers and beer drinkers here on earth.

Doyle Lentz grows barley, spring wheat, soybeans and canola on a farm near the Canadian border that has been in their family for more than a century.  Doyle is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).

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