Climate Change Predicted to Hit Wheat Production—and the U.S. Is Going to Be One of the Worst Places Affected

Wheat is a staple source of food for people across the planet, accounting for a fifth of the calories consumed globally. But, as a result of climate change, scientists believe most parts of the world where the crop is grown will be simultaneously hit by water shortages by the end of the century.

And the U.S. could be among the countries worst affected, the authors of the research published in the journal published in the journal Science Advances told Newsweek.

If climate change isn't tackled, by the year 2100, 60 percent of areas that grow wheat will be hit by water scarcity—up from the current level of 15 percent, according to the international team of scientists.

They say hitting the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change—including keeping average post-industrial global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius—could "substantially reduce the negative effects" of problems like droughts.

But even then, instances of growers struggling to water their crops is predicted to double between 2041 and 2070, compared with current conditions.

To predict the threat global warming presents to wheat, the researchers created a model based on drought conditions at the time of year wheat is grown.

Co-authors Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Song Feng, of the University of Arkansas, told Newsweek that in their previous research, they had shown climate change may cause soil to become less moist across most mainland U.S. states, including those where wheat is grown.

As a result, the U.S. could be "one of the top most affected wheat producers" in terms of the increase in areas affected by severe droughts, they said in a joint statement.

That could signal problems for farmers—and, in turn, the amount of wheat the country can export. But more detailed analysis is needed to understand the full extent of the potential problems, they stressed.

Partly due to the purchasing power of Americans, U.S. society likely won't suffer in as much as developing nations, the pair said.

Severe drought will strike major exporters, most of whom are in developed countries, "suggesting major challenges on wheat production and a high risk of food price spikes in the future," they said. "This scenario will add further hardship to the importers and the developing countries."

The projections are "unsettling," the pair argued as because have died, thousands made homeless, and countries "ruined" because of price hikes in past decades.

"It is not a future that must happen but maybe more likely under the future climate," they said.

Wheat is the number one rain-fed crop grown in terms of harvest area—equaling maize and rice combined. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts there will have been a 43 percent increase in demand for cereals—including maize, rice, sorghum, millet and wheat—between 2006 to 2050.

Worryingly, existing research cited by the authors has predicted a 4.0 to 6.5 percent drop in global wheat production per 1 degree Celsius of warming if climate change isn't mitigated. And it's unlikely wheat can be replaced if water becomes scarce, as it's not as thirsty as other crops and can do without for a relatively long period of time.

If multiple regions are affected by drought simultaneously "it might be difficult to meet the demand even if the trade routes stay open and are not restricted by governmental measures," warned Feng and Trnka.

However, they said: "Studies show that if we continuously improve the sustainability and technologies in the coming decades and allow for international trade, we may overcome the negative impacts of climate change."

File photo of wheat. Researchers have warned wheat production may be impacted by climate change, which could impact food prices. iStock