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Changing global appetite feeds farm investment

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The world's appetite is changing and investors stand to reap the benefits by making farm investment a staple of their portfolio.

In 2008, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao revealed that he had "a dream to provide every one of the Chinese people, especially children, with sufficient milk each day", while in 2011 the Indian government banned exports of skimmed milk powder to satisfy domestic demand.

Farming map is changing

Dairy products are not the only ones to benefit from this paradigm.

Meat consumption is also growing and expected to exceed 296m tonnes by 2018, a trend driven by Brazil and other developing markets in which centuries of vegetarianism are making way for a more protein-based diet.

As a result, the global farming map is changing.

There are not only more mouths to feed, but there is also a need for more diverse produce as dairy, meat and other products become increasingly affordable to the growing middle classes of the world's emerging economies, particularly in Latin America and Asia.

This opens up a huge number of investment opportunities and underscores the farming sector as a viable asset class in its own right.

Investment index

Launched in November 2011 and investing in companies with primary operations in farming or food production, the GAIA Farming Index has returned 10.33% over one year on a cumulative basis.

It has achieved an annualised return of 18.41% over the past four years based on back-tested data, strongly outperforming such references as the MSCI Emerging Markets SMID (12.88%), the Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF (MOO) (9.62%) and the Claymore Global Agriculture ETF (COW) (7.69%) over the same period.

Much of this sector's growth is driven by companies primarily operating in livestock.

Following its recent reconstitution, the GAIA Farming Index allocates a 19.82% weighting towards such companies with operational interests, not only throughout the US and China, but also Australia, Brazil, Finland, Thailand and Venezuela.

Meat producers present a compelling opportunity. But so do specialist ventures such as Cal-Maine Foods, the largest producer and marketer of shell eggs in the US.

Further gems lie in fish farming, with companies such as Oslo-based Cermaq driving growth through their diversified presence in major salmon farming regions worldwide.

Dairy leader

In contrast to the geographic diversity of companies producing meat, the most exciting opportunities in dairy tend to originate from a single source - China.

According to the Global Trade Information Services, the country spent more than $250m on 100,000 foreign heifers in 2011, more highly regarded than native breeds, feeding domestic demand for liquid dairy products that is expected to reach double-digit growth by 2020.

China Modern Dairy, one of the constituent companies in the Index, was recently ranked the fastest growing enterprise in China by China Entrepreneur magazine, its net profits up by 127.2% on the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Strong fundamentals

Meat and dairy are, however, far from being the only drivers in the farming sector.

The Index allocates 20% to palm oil, a cheap and versatile vegetable oil that is used in about half of all packaged supermarket products as well as non-food industries.

Indonesia and Malaysia together account for more than 85% of worldwide palm oil production, but demand is truly global and underscored by strong fundamentals.

Short-term fluctuations in its price do not account for the long-term story, notably the ongoing demand for processed foods; aging plantations and the sluggish development of new sites; and the movement towards biofuels as an alternative source of energy.

Attractive investment opportunity

This demonstrates how the demand for farming produce is fuelled not only by dietary changes but also industrial ones, adding a further dimension to the chains of supply and demand within the sector.

Yet even without industrial demand, the convergence of three key drivers - population growth, demographic trends and wealth creation - render the farming sector one of the most attractive investment opportunities in today's economic environment.

Alan Price is sales director at Indxis.

By Alan Price

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