Using cereal crops as examples, we review the breeding for tolerance to the abiotic stresses of low nitrogen, drought, salinity and aluminium toxicity. All are already important abiotic stress factors that cause large and widespread yield reductions. Drought will increase in importance with climate change, the area of irrigated land that is salinized continues to increase, and the cost of inorganic N is set to rise. There is good potential for directly breeding for adaptation to low N while retaining an ability to respond to high N conditions. Breeding for drought and salinity tolerance have proven to be difficult, and the complex mechanisms of tolerance are reviewed. Marker-assisted selection for component traits of drought in rice and pearl millet and salinity tolerance in wheat has produced some positive results and the pyramiding of stable quantitative trait locuses controlling component traits may provide a solution. New genomic technologies promise to make progress for breeding tolerance to these two stresses through a more fundamental understanding of underlying processes and identification of the genes responsible. In wheat, there is a great potential of breeding genetic resistance for salinity and aluminium tolerance through the contributions of wild relatives.