Fifth of world's calories threatened as climate scientists sound alarm over wheat

ROME, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Droughts caused by global warming could devastate up to 60% of the world’s wheat fields by the end of the century, causing food shortages and instability, researchers warned on Wednesday.

The world must prepare for “unprecedented” shocks to the production of the crop, a staple food in many countries, climate scientists said in a paper published in the journal Science Advances.

Even if the world manages to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), the negative effects would still double between 2041 and 2070, they said, urging farmers to adapt by using water more efficiently and altering planting schedules.

“The increase in the frequency and extent of adverse weather extremes and related shocks on the production side would be unprecedented,” said the paper.

Africa would be the most affected region by the middle of the century, Petr Havlik, one of the authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Europe, the United States and Russia would be severely hit, said Havlik, deputy director at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Africa is not a major wheat producer, but the crop provides 14% of the calories consumed by the continent’s population, which is projected to double by 2050, Havlik said.

Wheat, a key ingredient in everyday staples such as bread, noodles and cereals, provides nearly a fifth of calories consumed by humans globally, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It is grown on more land area than any other commercial crop and has a global export value of nearly $50 billion, the agency has said.

The FAO has projected a 43% increase in global demand for cereals, including wheat, by 2050, mainly from developing countries.

Unless these countries can successfully intensify wheat production, they will have to depend on imports, the paper said.

“These developments may increase food insecurity and, consequently, political instability and migration.”