BRASILIA, Brazil — The future for Brazil's mighty farm sector could be grim, with hotter temperatures pushing crops past its borders, uphill into the Andes and toward the tip of South America.
So Brazilian scientists and agronomists are rushing to deter the effects of climate change on the world's biggest coffee producer and second-ranking soybean grower, a country crucial to the international food supply.
Experts in tropical agriculture are developing genetically modified coffee, soy beans and other crops that can withstand higher temperatures in Brazil's expanding northeastern desert, new pests and diseases and more flooding in low-lying areas.
This year, the scientists are preparing the first large-scale plantings to test the productivity of new genetically modified soy crops at a climate-controlled research station in the southern state of Parana.
"Under the current situation, the production of food is threatened," said Eduardo Assad, a researcher for Brazil's agricultural research agency Embrapa.
Already, the world economic crisis has thrown Brazilian agricultural commodities into a slump, with grain prices plunging on weak demand. But climate change remains an acute long-term concern: The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an increase in global temperatures of 2 to 4 degrees centigrade in the next 20 years, with even greater temperature increases in the Amazon.
That could mean a 10 percent reduction Brazil's arable land for coffee by 2020 _ and a one-third reduction by 2070 _ as the crop's suitable climate migrates into the Andean foothills of neighboring Argentina, according to a study Assad directed.
Brazil's coffee plantations extend across 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares) and produce more than twice as much as the next-largest grower, Vietnam.
Brazil's soy crop, the largest outside the United States, would lose an estimated 20 percent of its cultivatable land by 2020. Beans, corn, sunflower, cotton are among other crops that would suffer a similar retreat due to high temperatures, the Embrapa study found.
"What we are doing in Brazil is adapting, anticipating what is to come," Assad said. "We've been working on this for two years, and we are going to need five or 10 years to be prepared."
Scientists at Embrapa have been isolating genes from drought-resistant plants and combining them with traditional crops. It's a difficult process, but researchers have seen some early successes in soy plants that respond favorably to dry, hot conditions while thriving in normal weather as well.
Modified bean and coffee varieties have not yet shown as much success.
Scientists around the world are turning to genetic engineering to bolster food production as supplies are stretched by population growth, drought and climate change. These genetically modified seeds have been controversial _ some farmers and environmentalists criticize the role of agricultural corporations, and worry about health consequences. But Brazil's biosafety commission has already approved modified varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton, and local scientists say their new seeds will be tested for safety.
The climate change panel's computer models show that even slight warming will reduce crop yields across the tropics. Brazil may be better equipped than most to adapt, since its scientists have spent decades developing fertilizer and soil management, infrastructure and public policies that have transformed arid tropical plains into today's thriving agricultural zones.
"We should see the real changes in 10 or 20 years" from global warming, said genetic engineering specialist Francisco Aragao. "If we want to do agricultural investigations to combat the effects, you have to start now."