WheatAgriculture researchers say the time is now to develop crops — including maize, wheat, rice and sorghum — that can resist global warming trends. (Photo: Cimmyt)

At its annual general meeting in Washington yesterday, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the world’s leading network of agricultural research centers, said the steady march of global warming was driving the need to develop new crop strains that can withstand rising temperatures, drier climates and increased soil salt content, as well as “boosting agriculture’s role in removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.”

In a news release about the meeting, the group explained:

The world’s population is expected to increase by 3 billion people by 2050. In a world where 75 percent of poor people depend on agriculture, climate change will have a profound impact on their food security.

Higher temperatures in Latin America, Asia, and Africa will shorten growing seasons. Changes in rainfall patterns may lead to droughts in some areas and to floods in others. Researchers have estimated that a rise in temperature and change in rainfall could result in losses amounting to as much as $2 billion a year through reduced yields of important food crops such as maize. In other regions of the South, farmers will face greater climate variability, including more frequent and sustained intense weather events such as droughts, floods, and typhoons.

BBC News noted on Sunday, in its pre-coverage of the conference, that the rising temperatures will, of course, have an impact not just on poor countries, including opening up parts of North America and Russia to wheat production that are currently too cold — including Alaska and Siberia. Indeed, a map based on research by Cimmyt, a nonprofit network of global organizations working on food security and agricultural issues, shows the belly of North America’s wheat bounty shifting to Canada by 2050.

Christopher Mims at the Scientific American blog noted yesterday that this would put America’s breadbasket squarely north of the border, and asked “if that’s what will happen to wheat, what’s going to happen to other key crops, like soybeans and corn?”