Jeffrey Ball, left, energy policy columnist at The New Republic, interviews U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about how climate change can affect agriculture at a forum held Tuesday at Drake University in Des Moines.

Alison Sullivan, TIMES BUREAU

DES MOINES — Agriculture will need to adapt to the changing climate, which could present economic opportunities, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

“We all have to be aware of the fact the climate is changing, and the warmer temperatures will change the way in which we approach agriculture, and we need to be prepared for that change,” Vilsack told reporters.

Vilsack joined other state leaders and energy experts who spoke during a forum at the Drake University campus titled, “The Frontier of Climate Change: State and Local Action in the Heartland” sponsored by Drake, the New Republic and the League of Women Voters. Around 150 people attended.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said during his keynote address that one of the Agriculture Department’s challenges “is to educate farmers about the vulnerability of agriculture” in regard to climate change.

Vilsack said changing temperatures certainly will affect what farmers can grow and how those crops are grown. He noted severe drought and shrinking water supplies as just some of the environmental issues farmers are facing across the nation

Vilsack said promoting a diverse agricultural economy and not depending on one product or traditional methods is key. Production agriculture, bio-manufacturing, conservation and promoting regional food systems also are important to rebuilding the rural economy, he said.

“I think it’s really about creating economic opportunity from what can be a very challenging circumstance,” Vilsack said.

That’s one reason, he said, behind the agency’s creation of seven climate hubs across the country, including Ames, to study the impact of climate change and what should be done to mitigate negative effects of rising temperatures.

Vilsack said it’s important to note that agriculture is often blamed for contributing to climate change when the industry actually contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States.

Jeffrey Ball, energy policy columnist at the New Republic, who interviewed Vilsack, also noted farming is responsible for a smaller percentage of greenhouse gases compared to other industries.

By comparison, electricity contributes 32 percent, transportation 28 percent and general industry contributes 20 percent to greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Vilsack also announced Tuesday that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded $6 million to 10 universities to study the effects of climate change on agriculture production.

Iowa State University will receive $550,000 to examine factors that affect climate adaptation and policies that help protect natural resources, grassland and wetlands.