Shayne Heffernan on Investing in Agriculture

Rising demand in Asia and Africa, recent floods in Asia and droughts in Africa are combining to lift global food prices.

Agriculture as a sector is building a solid base line as Governments and Corporations invest more to meet the growing food demand in Asia, Africa and South America.

Deere & Company NYSE:DE announced that in spite of an unsettled global economy, demand for products is expected to experience substantial growth in fiscal 2012 and the Company is forecasting further increases in sales and earnings as a result. For fiscal 2012, net income attributable is anticipated to be approximately $3.2 billion. According to I/B/E/S Estimates, analysts on an average were expecting the Company to report revenues of $32 billion and net profit of $2.9 billion for fiscal 2012.

Despite improved production prospects, world cereal markets are likely to remain fairly tight in 2011/2012.

FAO's quarterly Crop Prospects and Food Situation (CPFS) report forecast world cereal production will total 2 310 million tonnes this marketing season, 3 percent or 68 million tonnes higher than in 2010/11. This was 3 million tonnes more than FAO forecast last month, largely because of improved expectations for wheat and rice crops.

The overall year-on-year increase includes a 4.6 percent (30 million tonnes) rise in global wheat production, a 3 percent (14 million tonnes) rise in the rice harvest and a 2.1 percent (24 million tonnes) hike for coarse grains.

Total cereal utilization in 2011/12 is also forecast to increase slightly at 2 302 million tonnes, 1.3 percent up from 2010/11.

But despite the expected production gains, the report warns that because of the slowdown in the global economic recovery and increased risks of recession, there is uncertainty as regards the impact on world food security. Worsening economic conditions could result in higher unemployment and lower incomes for the vulnerable and needy in the developing countries.

Prices decline

The report said the anticipated recovery in global cereal production combined with lower than earlier anticipated demand, including for ethanol, are contributing to a decline in prices. In September, international prices of all cereals with the exception of rice fell sharply, driven by large export supplies from the Black Sea region and prospects for a weakening of demand.

FAO's monthly Food Price Index, also published today, fell 2 percent in September compared to August, to 225 points, mostly on lower international prices of grains, sugar and oils. The Index is now 13 points below the peak of 238 reached in February 2011, but still higher than its September 2010 value of 195 points.

Stocks up slightly

Global cereal stocks by the close of seasons in 2012 are forecast at 494 million tonnes, 7 million tonnes up from their opening level. The increase would principally stem from a 10 million tonne build-up of world rice inventories, as wheat stocks are anticipated to grow only marginally and, in the case of coarse grains, to contract by 4 million tonnes to 161 million tonnes, the lowest level since 2007. Overall, the stock-to-use ratio for cereals is expected to remain low at around 21 percent.

After declining over the previous two years, the total cereal imports of Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries in the 2011/12 marketing year are forecast to increase by about 4 million tonnes, representing a 5 percent rise over 2010/11.

This is consistent with the situation of the stagnant cereal production of LIFDCs, excluding India, in 2011 and some anticipated stock building during the marketing year.

Hot spots with grim outlook

Reviewing the food situation at regional level, CPFS noted that the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Africa, and especially in famine-ravaged southern Somalia, continues to claim lives and decimate livestock and that the immediate outlook in drought-affected pastoralist areas remains grim as the lean season progresses. Four million people are in crisis in Somalia, with 750 000 people at risk of death in the next few months in the absence of adequate response.

However, ongoing relief interventions should start to improve the situation later in the year.

Irregular rains threaten crop prospects

In West Africa, several areas of the Sahel have been affected by irregular rains during the 2011 cropping season. An early cessation of rains will lead to significant drop in production and increased food insecurity in these regions.

In Far East Asia, a record 2011 cereal harvest is anticipated, but severe localized monsoon floods in several countries - Bangladesh, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, India, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines - may dampen the final outcome. In particular, flooding in Sindh province of Pakistan has resulted in severe devastation affecting over 8 million people, destroying some 880 000 hectares of standing crops and causing the death of large numbers of livestock.

FAO's latest estimates indicate that 32 countries around the world are in need of external assistance as a result of crop failures, conflict or insecurity, natural disasters, and high domestic food prices.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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