Monday, August 12, 2013

Investors in agriculture ignore environmental risks at their peril

Oliver Balch in the "Finance Hub" at the Guardian (UK): Forget hi-tech stocks or shares in fast-growth pharma. Farming is where the clever money is heading these days. With the world enjoying the longest agricultural commodity boom since the second world war, billions of investment dollars are funnelling into farm-rich emerging markets such as Brazil, Nigeria and China. More established agricultural powerhouses such as North America and Russia are surging too. Many investors are sitting pretty as a consequence. Global farmland asset values, for instance, have quadrupled in value since 2002. Commodity prices have spiked as well, with the benchmark FAO Food Price Index more than doubling between 2002 and the end of 2011.

Yet, agriculture is not without its risks, particularly those relating to the environment. Climate change, green regulations, disease, fertiliser availability: the list of potential wobbles along the way is vast and complex. Take water. Global agriculture is currently responsible for 70% of all water withdrawn from aquifers, streams and lakes. If the taps are turned off or these water resources run dry, the implications for the farming sector are potentially disastrous. "You can't invest in agriculture without thinking carefully about these issues", warned Ben Caldecott, co-author of the new report, Stranded Assets in Agriculture, and a programme director at the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and Environment.

The potential losses are colossal. Using a high-level value at risk (VaR) assessment, Caldecott and his colleagues at the Smith School estimate that there's a 5% chance of agricultural-related losses amounting to more than $8tn (£5.17tn) in a single year. Other than a "very small band of investors", pension funds and other large financial institutions fail to factor environmental risks into their due diligence or product pricing when it comes to agriculture, according to Caldecott.

Such disregard is surprising. The idea that environment-related risks could cause assets to decline in value, or even turn into liabilities, has been preoccupying energy investors for a while now. A recent report by the think tank Carbon Tracker suggests that climate change could wipe trillions of dollars off the value of the world's largest oil companies...

Wheat stubble in Poland, shot by Ludek, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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