The History of Agriculture

My book on the grain merchants has reverted to the title I first thought of, “Alphabet Soup—The Seven Companies at the Centre of Your Food Supply.” I am still aiming for publication in early-November.

There is a saying in the book business that “the wastepaper basket is a writer’s best friend.” In putting together the first draft of my book, I deleted large chunks of what I had previously written. I have fished out some of the least bad bits, and I will share them with you over the coming weeks. This is the first:

As Richard Manning wrote in “Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Humanity,” of the roughly 300,000 years that mankind has wandered this earth, we have spent 290,000 of those as hunter-gatherers. Agriculture is a relatively new game for us and, as you have realised when visiting your local supermarket, we still have hunter-gatherer genes.

And even during the last 10,000 years, farming has changed little. Fields were regularly left fallow, and animal manure was the sole fertiliser. It was only in the early 1800s that scientists began to understand that inorganic minerals such as nitrogen, potassium, lime, and phosphoric acid could replenish depleted soils, leading to the production of mineral fertilizers.

The search for fertiliser led merchants and scientists to the dry seabird islands off the South American and South African coasts, where immense deposits of bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, had accumulated over centuries. Guano mining became a profitable business. Between 1840 and 1880, guano nitrogen made a vast difference to European agriculture, but the best deposits were soon exhausted. Rich mineral nitrate deposits were found in Chile, and nitrate mines gradually took the place of guano in the late 19th century.

However, as Michael Pollen writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the great turning point in the modern history of agriculture can be dated to the day in 1947 when a huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over from making explosives to making chemical fertilizer. He explains that at the end of World War II, the US government found itself with a surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in making explosives. Ammonium nitrate is an excellent source of nitrogen for plants, and the chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases which were also developed for war) was the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.

Even though the earth’s atmosphere is about 80 percent nitrogen, nitrogen atoms have to be split and joined to hydrogen atoms (“fixed”) before they can be used for fertilizer or bombs. A German Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber worked out how to do that in 1909. Before he made that discovery, all the usable nitrogen on earth had to be fixed by soil bacteria or by electrical lightning, which breaks down nitrogen bonds in the atmosphere.

In his book, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil explains that “there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen.” Without Haber’s invention, the amount of life on earth would have been limited by the small amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning alone could release. Mr Smil argues that as a result, the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen (Bosch commercialised Haber’s idea) was the most important invention of the 20th century. He estimates that 40 percent of the people on the earth today would not be alive if not for the invention. Without synthetic fertilizer, billions of people would never have been born.

Although Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind,” he has since largely been airbrushed out of history. During World War I he helped the German war effort by making bombs from synthetic nitrate. Worse, he also developed poison gases including Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi concentration camps.

Michael Pollen argues that once mankind had acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. The Haber-Bosch process works by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure, the energy supplied by electricity. The hydrogen is supplied by oil, coal or, most commonly today, natural gas.

Growing crops, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of converting sunlight into food, has become a process of converting fossil fuels into food. More than half of the world’s supply of usable nitrogen is now man-made—and more than half of all the synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn alone.

© Commodity Conversations ®

A conversation with J-F Lambert

Good morning J-F. Could you briefly describe who you are and what you do?

I am a former banker with a banker’s DNA. I spent most of my career in international banking and trade finance, with stints in Greece and Asia. I was originally with Crédit Commercial de France -CCF, and then with HSBC, when they took over CCF. I moved to London where I built the structured trade finance activities, and then the global commodity finance activities for the group.

I’m now a consultant on trade and commodity finance and strategy for banks, companies and funds. I also teach commodity market dynamics at Sciences Po in Paris, and regularly lecture at the London Business School.

How are the different trade houses adapting to the changes in their business environment?

Although everybody is investing in logistics, Glencore is differentiating itself through a strategy of size. They believe that through size they can reduce costs, and perhaps even become a price-setter rather than a price-taker.

When you talk to ADM or Cargill, they tell you that they don’t trade commodities, but that they are an integrated supply chain from farm to fork. Their profits are not coming from trading; their profits are coming from sophisticated supply chain management. They also endeavor to generate commercial margins by producing and selling adding-value products downstream.

Cargill has been doing this for many years now, shifting focus to animal and fish proteins. This certainly makes sense when population is increasing and the middle-class is growing. The world needs more protein, and Cargill’s investment into the verticality of the protein supply chain is paying off handsomely.

ADM is a different animal. Let’s not forget that the original “A” amongst the ABCDs was André, not Archer Daniels Midland. ADM is by and large an agri-industrial company, not a trading house. It has developed into trading, but the bulk of their money is spent and earned on the industrial part of the business.

Dreyfus will also tell you that they are no longer a trading house, and that they are now supply chain managers. However, Dreyfus is probably one of the last true large trading houses left in the market. That is quite a challenge in a market where the odds of making money through trading get slimmer.

Bunge is somewhere in between Cargill and Dreyfus. There is more trading at Bunge than there is at Cargill, but Bunge is keen to complement their upstream capabilities with downstream access, in search for commercial margins. Their aim is to lower their reliance on trading and become more of an agri-industrial company.

What about COFCO, or rather their trading company COFCO International Ltd? You once said that their role was to feed the dragon.

COFCO International is a game changer in the world of agricultural commodity trading.

I believe their true mission is to optimize sourcing at origin and ensure a smooth and efficient supply for the Chinese market. Their grip on China as a destination is already strong and will only get stronger. This is a major issue for the ABCDs, as price discovery in China will get more difficult to read.

I believe the rivalry between the U.S and China is a new normal. If that view is correct, COFCO International’s role becomes even more important. It has to restructure the sourcing and origination of China’s food imports in order to lower the country’s dependency on the U.S. To fulfill it efficiently, I would expect further acquisitions/alliances down the road.

Do you believe that traceability is an integral part of a trade house model?

Traceability is not a luxury, it is “a must have.” Part of the process of industrialization is to efficiently support that traceability requirement. For now, consumers in developed countries are the most demanding, but with emerging urban middle classes around the world, requirements for traceability will only rise and spread.

There seems to be a growing trend for banks to link finance to sustainability and human rights objectives.

I see a future—not too far away—where at least the large banks will eventually only finance sustainable production. This is the trend. If you look at the coal business, not a single international bank will finance a new project in coal fired power generation. I think that banks will have to exit non-sustainable agribusinesses. Not doing it would merely be unacceptable to the society at large, and the reputational risk incurred would be too high.

 Will any of the big trading companies exit their bulk commodity trading operations to concentrate on higher value parts of the supply chain?

Trading companies will not “quit” trading. It is their core expertise and their culture. However, trading as a stand-alone is no longer generating profits in line with the risks undertaken. All large trading companies therefore are endeavoring to complement – or rather, enhance – their trading capabilities by capturing what they have identified as the higher value parts of the supply chains. This is easier said than done.

First, you need to identify the right supply chain and the right portion of it: upstream or downstream. Second, investing in supply chains is costly and companies need the financial strength to do so.

Not every player can afford the risks and costs involved. This leaves them with two alleys: partnerships and mergers amongst equals.

Do you think that trade houses should be publicly quoted?

A listed company has to have a growth story to tell, year after year to investors. This does not fit well with the cyclical nature of the commodity business. But I will go one step further. As I already said, commodity traders are currently struggling to make money, and I think that they will continue to struggle in the years to come. So I doubt we will see any commodity traders listing in the next 10 or 15 years.

Would you recommend a young person now to join one of the big grain trading companies?

There is no better school for someone to learn about markets and discover how the world works. Commodities are about history, demography, geography, economy, finance and geopolitics! It is a fantastic training for young people, even if they intend to move on to other activities.

Thank you J-F for your time.

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is a brief extract of a conversation that will be included in my upcoming book on the grain trade, to be published before the end of 2019.

More Questions for GJ

What are the biggest challenges currently facing the grain merchandising industry?”

In the 2000 to 2010 boom the industry built up too much capacity, too many silos. Farmers around the world have also built storage capacity. Their need for merchants of grain to store commodities, and to take them off their hands at harvest time has become less. That is a significant change that challenges intermediaries such as ourselves. We need to add value to the farmers in a different way than we have done in the past.

Another challenge that we face is government intervention; the current trade conflict is an example. Tariffs and import and export bans make it harder and more costly to move food around the world. They lead to inefficiencies and extra costs.

Ian McIntosh, the CEO of Dreyfus, recently said, “One tweet and everything changes.” Traders need volatility, but they like volatility that is at least partially predictable.

If you trade you need price volatility. If the price doesn’t move, you can’t make money. You might not lose either, but not losing isn’t enough to stay in business. By definition traders require volatility.

However, unpredictable political volatility increases risks and costs. It becomes a casino, and then it becomes gambling rather than trading. There have been a lot of market impacting tweets. That has made trading difficult in the past year.

But one thing I would say is that our global scale has helped us to find solutions. Recently, trade tariffs have made it more expensive to supply US beans to our buyers in China, but because of our global scale we have been able to supply Brazilian beans instead. We couldn’t do that without global scale. If you were a small regional player in the US you would have been caught in that.

Can grain merchants still add value, or can the market now do without intermediaries?”

There are a lot of myths around the grain trade, that traders just make money hand over fist, that they are making huge amounts of money on the backs of farmers and consumers. It is not true. In reality, margins are very thin in the agriculture sector.

On the plus side, pressure on margins means that we are constantly looking to make the systems more efficient, to cut back costs, and to make sure that our agricultural products are moved in the most cost effective and efficient way.

So yes, there is a need for intermediaries as long as they can continually reinvent themselves to add value. We have to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and to add value on both ends of the spectrum, at origin and at destination. If you cannot add value, then there is no reason for you to be in business.

Is traceability compatible with tradability?

I don’t think traceability necessarily kills tradability, but it clearly restricts it. You end up with an IP (Identity Preserved) product. It is a value added product that is not really exchangeable. A commodity is a commodity because it is exchangeable. An IP product requires segregation; it is not a standard product.

Our objective within Cargill is for all products to become sustainable. Once that happens the distinction between traceability and tradability no longer exists.

How has Cargill changed since you joined?

At its core, the company has not changed. We are still a values-driven company where ethics and compliance is at the top of who we are. That has not changed over 150 years and I don’t think it will ever change. It is a family requisite. The Cargill family cares about the company, about passing on to the next generation, and that will only happen if we take care of the company in an appropriate manner.

Cargill has however changed from a portfolio perspective. When I joined in 1987 we were still predominately a trading company. The trading part of Cargill is still a critical part of the company. We still have an active trading business. We trade actively around our assets. We are a major supply chain manager. But we have also diversified our portfolio into the value-added products. We have invested heavily into animal feed, into the meat businesses, into starches and sweeteners, fermentation. That has diversified the revenue streams, but it has also allowed us to capture margins in the downstream supply chain just as the margins in trading were under pressure.

Chris Mahoney, the CEO of Glencore Agriculture, told me that something like 15 percent of his company’s revenue comes from trading and merchandising.

It is difficult to put an exact number on it, and trading is an art not a science; it varies from year to year. We still have a huge amount invested in people and talent to trade and position in the market place, and I would guess that it is larger than our competitors today. Nevertheless, the trading side of Cargill relative to the rest of Cargill is now less than it used to be. That is simply because our portfolio on the value-added side has grown significantly.

What makes Cargill different from other merchandising companies – what is your USP?

I am not going to talk about our competitors, so I will answer that question in terms of what I think we are good at.

Number one is our exceptional talent—our people. Number two is that we are truly global as a company; we have good assets in all the key geographies, whether at origin or destination. Number three is the way that the different businesses within Cargill work together. Number four I believe we can differentiate ourselves by the importance we place on our relationships with customers and suppliers. We work with our end users and our suppliers to adapt to their changing needs.

Would you recommend young people to become traders, to join Cargill?

You are asking someone with a fascination for markets and trading, so yes I would recommend anyone to become a trader. Trading will never disappear. We manage risks, and those risks will never disappear. There is risk all along the agriculture supply chain and that risk has to be managed. To manage risk you have to understand the marketplace.

To take that one step further, you go beyond simply risk management into trading opportunities, where you see something that the market is mispricing, and you seek to profit from that. That is how markets work. It is a fascinating business. You have global forces at play.

There is now greater need to understand mathematics and mathematical models than in the past. Data science is becoming increasingly more important. I joined Cargill before the Internet existed. And I studied law, not mathematics. But I guess I must have some ability at maths, otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today.

So you need to be strong in mathematics now to be a good trader, and that is not for everyone.

You also need to be able to manage stress. Your job should not be at the cost of your health. It is a tough environment. A lot of people come and go. It is performance driven culture, if you don’t perform consistently you will be replaced. You are always at the cutting edge. Performance is quick to come and go.

Cargill is often viewed as a training programme for the industry. How do you feel about that—and how do you manage it?

 I have mixed feelings about that. In one sense it bothers me. Through our training we are obviously feeding our competitors with talent. But at the same time I am proud that we recruit and train people so well. That tells you a lot about this company and the way we invest in our people. I think that is a good thing.

But frankly there is no choice at the end of the day. We are a pyramidal structure. People are promoted on merit, and there will be people that fall out of that system. Our objective is to maintain our strongest talent. We don’t always succeed. But not everyone can make it to the top, so there will always be people that seek other opportunities. I think that is ok. It is the way the system works; it is inevitable.

What would like to read about in a book about the grain trade?

The grain trade plays a vital role in the agriculture sector and I think that story needs to be told. The industry has a stigma that is hard to lose but the key is transparency. We have to show we are doing good, but we also have to admit to our challenges and vulnerabilities. I am proud of the way that Cargill has evolved. We tell our story in good faith. We have very strong values, and we are in the business for the long run.

To feed a growing population we have to make sure that our farmers receive a fair payment for their crops and that they thrive. But at the same time we need to care for the planet. We don’t want any further deforestation. There are paradoxes that we need to manage. We are in the middle of this and want to play a role. There are a lot of conflicting issues to be managed. We cannot ignore one away in favour of another. They need to be handled and met at the same time.

Thank you GJ for your time!

The full interview will be published in my upcoming book, “Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain.”

 © Commodity Conversations ®

A conversation with GJ

Gert-Jan (“GJ”) van den Akker is responsible for strategy and execution for Cargill’s agricultural supply chain businesses. He joined Cargill in 1987 in Amsterdam and held a number of positions across Cargill’s agricultural supply chain businesses, including roles with palm oil by-products in Kuala Lumpur, domestic grain markets in Tokyo, and corn and soybeans in Geneva.

GJ has also held leadership roles in Cargill’s energy, transportation and metals businesses. He was managing director of the worldwide ocean transportation business from 2007 to 2011.

In 2013, he left Cargill to become senior head of global regions at Louis Dreyfus, a privately owned food and agriculture company. He was a member of Dreyfus’ senior leadership team, a member of the Dreyfus risk committee and leader of business development in the grain and oilseed sector. He re-joined Cargill in December 2015.

You spent much of your career in shipping. What did you learn from your time in shipping that helps you in your current job?

I learnt that to be successful in commodity trading, you have to have a physical presence and a deep understanding of what is happening in the physical markets. That is clearly something that helped us as we built up our shipping operations. We had good insights into the physical movement of goods; this helped us with our trading.

Second, I learned the value and importance of building customer relationships. We were an operator, not an owner, of ships, and we had to provide our customers with a better service than any ship owner could. Sometimes it was on price, but more often it was flexibility. I also learned the importance of having very strong supplier relationships. At Cargill we treat our suppliers as if they were customers.

What does your current position entail?

Cargill is made up of four divisions: agricultural supply chain, animal nutrition, protein and salt; and food ingredients and bio-industrial. I oversee the agricultural supply chain business, what I would call the “original” Cargill. It includes everything that relates to grain, oilseeds and agricultural products, from origination along the whole supply chain to destination and distribution. It also includes all our oilseed crushing activities around the globe and includes our sugar business, Alvean, a joint venture with Copersucar, as well as our palm business.

Also, I am a member of what we call the Cargill Executive Team, a group of ten people who are accountable for strategy and who oversee the global enterprise.

What in your career has been the most challenging and what has been the most fun?

That’s a good question. I had the most fun in the shipping business. It was such a phenomenal time. I like businesses where you can invest and grow.

Without a doubt, the position I have today is the most challenging, simply because of size and accountability. It takes a huge amount of effort to grasp and understand the complexities around the world, and to manage all the different elements that impact agriculture markets. In addition, since I took on this role, we have had to make some pretty tough decisions around our portfolio of businesses. There are certainly areas where we continue to grow, but we have also taken some assets out of our portfolio. That is never fun. It often comes with job losses. Even so, although we have been managing the portfolio, our overall business has continued to grow.

Today’s environment is in itself a challenging one for commodity traders. The margins are thin, so you have to be on your toes. That puts a lot of pressure on me personally.

How have you managed your work / life balance—the stress?”

Commodity trading requires a high level of resilience. Markets don’t always go in your favour, and that can be very stressful.

I have been very fortunate in that I can see the relativity of things. I can go back home in the evenings, have dinner with my wife or family and I can let things go by. I can empty my brain of work. It doesn’t always happen, but generally speaking I can relax.

I do some exercise. I play golf. I am a mediocre player—a handicap of 15—but I enjoy it. I also spend quite a bit of time in the gym, although apparently not as much as Chris Mahoney. I love hiking. Working here in Geneva is great because it allows you to get out into the mountains in the weekends.

Good traders only talk about their bad trades—what was your worst?

I have had bad trades, but I am not sure that I want to recall them! Maybe I could tell you instead about what could have been anyone’s worst nightmare of a trade. This was back in 2009 when I was in charge of the shipping business and we had a lot of ships chartered out. Shipping rates collapsed: Capesize rates dropped from $200,000 per day to $5,000 per day in one month. Our market exposure was huge and we were worried that our charterers would default. We had to manage that exposure and ensure that we got contract performance. It took a year out of my life, but by and large we came out okay in the end.

Are markets your “passion” in life—or is it golf?

Neither! My family comes number one in my life, so if I have a passion at all, it is for my family. Managing my work / life balance has been one of the biggest personal challenges. It is tough to find the right balance. We have all made the mistake at some stage in our careers of not spending enough time with the family. But the older I get, the more I understand the importance of family. Even though my children are now grown up, I love seeing how they are getting on.

I am fascinated by—rather than passionate about—markets. I always have been. There are so many different variables that impact price. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to work out what variable will have the most impact at any given time.”

How have the grain markets changed since you began in 1987?”

Although this may surprise you, I don’t think they have changed much; the business models have not really changed. Cargill’s function for the past 150 years was to be a global supply chain manager – to move food from farm to fork. Cargill has never farmed, except in the palm oil business where we operate plantations in Indonesia and pride ourselves on setting the highest standards in the industry. Instead, we build relationships with farmers, we acquire grains and oilseeds from them, we store them, we trade them, hedging our risk on the futures exchanges. We transport them, and we arbitrage between domestic and world markets. That has been what we have always done and that is still what we do!

What has changed a lot recently is the availability of new technology and data—and new ways to analyse that data. Cargill has always been at the forefront of data collection and analytics. We have always understood the value of data, whether proprietary information on the back of the businesses we are involved in, or publicly available information, such as weather.

Today, there is much more data available, and we have to able to analyse it, but our basic supply-chain business model has not changed.

Having said that, I believe the biggest change in the grain business is yet to come. With advances in technology the requirements to be successful will change, as will the services that you provide to your customers. The newer generation of farmers are latching onto technology in terms of production, and they now want to transact in a different way than they used to transact. That is all changing. Those relationships are going to change along with technology.

Is there going to be consolidation?

I think the market will consolidate to deal with excess capacity, but please don’t ask me how that will happen because I don’t know. It doesn’t have to be among the big five or six companies.

The last time we were in a situation of excess capacity was in the late 1980s and 1990s. We saw two huge players exiting the market because they no longer thought that the risks were worth the rewards. Could that happen again?

 Players come and go – that will never change. The way that the industry manages risk is going to have to change. In today’s world, you need the right talent, as well as investment in IT systems. In that sense, scale is critical—along with a physical presence. It will become increasingly difficult for companies with no scale or significant physical presence to participate in this business.

However you have to guard against bureaucracy. You can’t let bureaucracy stifle trading or discourage talent. There are still things we at Cargill must do to improve, but we know that adding layers of bureaucracy adds to costs. You can’t blow up the costs, stay competitive and be successful.

The full interview will be published in my upcoming book, “Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain.”

© Commodity Conversations ®

Jason Clay

Jason Clay heads up WWF-US’ work on global markets and trends related to food. He launched WWF’s global work on agriculture, aquaculture, and market transformation for food and soft commodities companies. I spoke to him by phone from Washington DC.

The WWF seems to be an organization that looks for solutions to problems rather than just naming and shaming. Is that a fair assessment?

Naming and shaming is also very broad brush; you can name and shame a lot of people who aren’t actually the problem. If you want to find solutions you have to build coalitions, working quietly and more behind-the-scenes. This is WWF’s strategy. To solve most global problems, everyone should be part of the solution. At least that makes change happen faster.

WWF is a science-based organization. We base our programs on science and research. For us, it is “Get informed, and then get involved.”

WWF has been involved in setting up a number of sustainability certification programs such as the Round Table of Responsible Soy and the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil.

The fundamental question is, “Why do we have certification bodies?” The answer is “Because governments aren’t doing their job to protect the planet for future generations.”

Certification is not the best option, but right now it’s the one we have. Can it be better? Sure.

But you once said that the certification agencies are about certifying the top 10 percent, while it’s really the bottom 25 percent that is causing most of the damage and needs the most help.

Unfortunately we are often quite willing to let the perfect get in the way of the good. But once producers start seeing that better practices achieve better results they begin to ask how they can implement them too.

But, at the end of the day the biggest environmental impacts come from the bottom 25 percent. That’s where we need governments. The poorest performing producers either need to improve, or get out. Only governments can make that happen.

What is the role of traders, if any, in this?

Most people don’t understand that commodity traders are very efficient at what they do. The problem is that we’re asking traders to do more than the commodity trading system was designed to do. Commodity trading allowed buyers to purchase a product that is interchangeable with any other ton of the same product. If you buy number two yellow corn, you receive number two yellow corn.

From about 1860 to the 1970s, commodities were defined by physical properties, weights, moisture content, foreign matter, broken pieces, and other physically verified attributes.

Since the 1970s, however, people have begun to ask commodity traders to address such issues as labour conditions (e.g. minimum wages; child labour) and environmental impacts (e.g. pesticides, deforestation, soil health, etc). Buyers are asking traders to verify specific traits that pose reputational risks to retailers and brands that are more inclusive than weights and measures and physical properties.

What are the challenges traders face to make these changes happen?

Trading companies are trying to find ways to put such verification systems in place, but they have two problems. First, they need buyers to commit to more than one off purchases. Depending on the commodity, they need multi-year commitments.

If a trader puts systems in place to verify how a product is produced, it costs money. They need multi-year contracts to offset those costs. Otherwise, the trader could be stuck with this initial cost. If traders could get a five-year contract from a company to buy more sustainable palm oil, soy or whatever, they could amortize their one-off costs over that five-year period.

A trading company may make 1.5 to 3 percent on a single trade. If the verification cost is 1 percent, then on a 1.5 percent margin you’ve already lost more that half of your profit. But if the initial cost can be amortized over five years it gets down to a point where it is negligible. But for that to happen the downstream buyers have to put the money where their mouth is, but most have not done that. That is the issue that traders are facing.

So we have two issues to address. One: how do we turn retailer and brand commitments into actual purchases? Two: how do we get traders to work together without risk of collusion?

From a sustainability point of view we need companies to work together. Companies have to work together to solve sustainability issues. This is not about price fixing. It’s about internalizing environmental externalities into prices.

We have to work together to manage the planet. We can’t manage it one producer, one trader, one retailer, one brand or one government at a time.

You mentioned externalities. Although consumers say they will pay for externalities, they don’t. What could be done there?

If all commodities were produced more sustainably, consumers wouldn’t have a choice. Changing the definition of a commodity could help. Number two yellow corn could also be more sustainable. It is not clear that the price would go up, especially if producer prices for less sustainable products declined because they cost society more. We need to get the price signals right—today sustainable products cost more, but unsustainable products cost society far more. But ultimately, the consumer is the polluter. And the principle is that the polluter pays.

When you see what’s happening, how we’re living at 1.3 or 1.5 planets per year, do you get pessimistic?

Sure, but we only have one planet, and we have to address sustainability issues one way or another. My main motivator is my children’s future, but also the future of all other living things on the planet. This is literally about life on earth.

Thank you Jason for your time.

This is an extract of an interview with Jason, which I will publish in full in my upcoming book, “Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain”

© Commodity Conversations ®

Challenging times

Part Two of a Conversation with Howard Jay O’Neil

“Let’s talk a little about ASF, African Swine Fever,” I suggested. “Isn’t that a bigger problem for US farmers than the trade wars?

“It is a major problem. In 2017, China imported 95 million tonnes of soybeans and we were expecting Chinese demand to exceed 100 million tonnes in 2019. But that was prior to ASF and the tariffs. We now expect China to import 80-84 million tonnes, a substantial drop.

“Both the U.S. and South America have been ramping up soybean production to supply a 95 to 100 million tonne China market, and now we have only 80-84 million. I don’t know whether you would call it a perfect storm, but ASF and the trade wars coming together at the same time are having a major impact on trade.”

“So the situation is similar to the 1980s,” I argued. “We have too many beans and too much infrastructure.”

“I don’t see it as being as bad as the 1980s and early 1990s when margins were negative across the whole industry. It is true we are going through a downturn in export demand. We have surplus transportation, surplus export capacity and surplus ocean transportation. You only have to read the financial results of the big grain companies to see that profits are challenged. But it is not as dark as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s when profits were negative. Although profits now are poor, they are not negative.”

“What do you think about the idea of giving beans away to poor countries as food aid?” I asked Jay.

“It is always a question of scale and volumes. We have a 900 million bushel carryout on soybeans this year and most expect that to grow to one billion bushels.  That is the largest surplus of soybeans that we have ever had in the US: a 23/25 percent stocks-to-use ratio.  We also have surpluses in wheat and corn. It will take time to solve this problem; it is a multi-year problem. Giving away a few cargoes here and there of beans is not going to solve the problem.”

“What about the introduction of GM crops,” I asked Jay. “Have these contributed to the surpluses?”

“Very much so! As well as improving yields, farmers tell me that when they plant GM seeds they are more confident that they will do well even if the weather is bad. By giving farmers a certain comfort level GM crops have encouraged them to plant a larger acreage and to get more production per acre.

“In addition, we are now planting beans further north and further west than they were planted in the past. Historically in the US we didn’t plant large quantities of corn or beans in North or South Dakota; now we do. The same applies to Western Kansas or Western Nebraska. In the last 15 years GM technology has led to a dramatic expansion of production into areas that previously couldn’t profitably grow these crops.

“Previously these areas could only grow wheat or barley because of the lack of rainfall and the soil type. Now farmers plant GM corn and beans, and they have been displacing barley and wheat areas. The same applies to Canada where the new short season seeds have led to an expansion of soybean production; it may even double in a few years, although admittedly from a low level.

“GM technology has enabled farmers to grow corn and beans in areas that historically they have not been able to. GM technology has also contributed to yield improvements in the traditional growing areas. So GM technology has had a very significant impact—and will continue to have an impact.”

“Why isn’t there any GM wheat?” I wondered.

“If you ask the seed companies they will tell you that corn and beans are much bigger crops by planted acres, and are commercially more attractive to them than wheat. In addition soy meal and corn are largely used for animal feed. Wheat is mainly consumed by humans.

“In 2008/2009 the US farmers did ask the seed companies to develop GM wheat; yields were not increasing as much as in corn and beans, and the US was losing wheat acreage to those two crops. But when they asked the Japanese flour millers, who are major buyers of US wheat, they said they would not buy US wheat if it were GM. As a result, GM wheat was put on the back shelf; as it was considered too market disrupting.

“Some test-plot research on GM wheat has been done in US, Canada and Australia, but so far there has been no commercial production. There have been three what you might call “outbreaks” of GM wheat, one in Canada, one in Oregon and now one in Washington State. An environmental group discovered a few GM wheat plants in among non-GM wheat and alongside a dirt road, but admittedly a significant distance—hundreds of miles—from any GM test sites. No one knows how those plants got there.

“The Japanese put a temporary embargo on US wheat when it was discovered in Oregon, and later on Canadian wheat when it was discovered there. They introduced a testing protocol, but no GM wheat was ever found in any shipment and the embargoes were short-lived.”

“Going slightly off subject, you recently retweeted a cartoon on Twitter showing organic farming using more land because of lower yields. Is that your view?” I asked.

“Organic farming has lower yields than non-organic farming, so you obviously need more land to get a similar production. More carbon is released in the process. A greater agricultural area also means less forest and less biodiversity. Many people believe that organic food is better for them health wise than non-organic. I don’t personally agree with that, but that is the perception among some people and that has created a small percentage of specialized demand for those commodities and products.

“Now changing the subject completely, would you recommend your children to become farmers or merchants, or neither?”

“I have two kids, neither of them have an interest in either farming or grain merchandising. Farming is not a business. It is a lifestyle. It takes place in rural areas, often in isolated areas, takes long hours of hard work, and that is not for everyone. As a result many young people don’t want to continue family farming. They want the social life and types of jobs that can be found in metropolitan areas.

“From an economic standpoint, farming is cyclical. We are currently in a down-cycle with low profitability. As a result, it is difficult to obtain capital to buy land or equipment. The farmers that are doing OK now have been farming for generations; they have low debt. It is not a positive economic proposition to buy a farm now and equip it. You have to like the lifestyle and be in it for the long run.

“As for grain merchandising, yes I would recommend a young person to go into it. In the long-term I  expect it to be a financially worthwhile and intellectually interesting career. But a lot of the grain companies are currently going through restructuring and laying off staff. We are at that stage in the cycle, but we have been through many cycles before, and I trust that we come through it as in the past.

“Having said that, the rise of the US ethanol industry had increased competition for grain in the countryside and made things more difficult for the grain merchants. They are no longer the only buyers.

“Another thing that has changed is that farmers are now storing their crops in their own on-farm storage facilities. Today 55 percent of grain storage capacity in the US is on-farm; only 45 percent is commercial. It used to be easy for merchants to buy cheap grain at harvest time, store it and sell it later. Domestic, as well as export, markets are more competitive now, and handling margins have narrowed.

“An additional problem today is that political interference is difficult to predict. It is impossible to guess how long the trade wars will last. Some trade houses expected the trade war with China to be short-lived; they were wrong-footed when it persisted.

“But taking everything together I have had—and continue to have—a fascinating career in the grain merchandising business. It has been challenging, but it has also been rewarding both intellectually and financially. So yes, I would absolutely recommend young people to join the sector.”

“Thank you, Jay for your time and your input”.

© Commodity Conversations ®

Is history repeating itself?

Part One of a Conversation with Howard Jay O’Neil

I spoke with Jay by phone from his home in Southern Oregon. He has recently taken semi-retirement from the faculty at Kansas State University, where he managed the commercial operations of the International Grains Program; he now operates his own private consulting business. When I spoke with him, Jay had recently returned from speaking at a buyers’ conference in Thailand organized by the USSEC, the US soybean export council. Prior to that he was doing similar workshops in Central America for the US Grains Council.

Jay told me that he started in the business in January 1973 straight out of college. “I joined Continental Grain in Orinda California,” he continued. “It was right at the beginning of what was later described as “The Great Russian Grain Robbery,” and I was right in the middle of it.

“I stayed with Conti until May 1977, when I was hired by Pillsbury to work as a grain merchandiser in the export grain organization they had at that time.

I worked in Omaha, Nebraska for one year, moved briefly to St Louis Missouri, their regional office for export trading, and then to their Minneapolis headquarters. I stayed with Pillsbury until 1984, when they sold their grain origination business to Cargill. Pillsbury had quite a sizeable operation at the time with over 90 domestic facilities.

“When the Soviets came in for grain in the 1970s, the US just didn’t have the transportation logistics to handle the volumes that they wanted to buy. The US agricultural industry was not ready or equipped for that much demand. There simply weren’t enough rail cars, barges, or export facility capacity to handle the volumes.

“By the early to mid-eighties the U.S. had built the export capacity needed to meet what we expected to be long-lasting Soviet grain demand. But then the Russian demand slowed down. They didn’t have enough money to continue buying the volumes that they had been buying.

“The industry found itself in a horrendous position with an over capacity of transport equipment and export capacity.  People were driving around the US looking for empty rail sidetracks where they could store their surplus railcars. We were using old military sites, unused industrial sites, anywhere we could find to store them.  We parked our empty railcars in the expectation that we would need them one day. But it would be many years, and hundreds of millions of dollars in industry losses, before the excess rail and barge capacity would diminish and balance out with cargo demand.

“I remember one particular meeting at Pillsbury in Minneapolis where the management group turned to the Vice President of our barge division, and told him to send out teams to look for trees along the Mississippi and its tributaries that were big enough to tie off barges to let them sit.

“Everyone was shouldering excess transportation assets, as well as export assets, and everyone was hemorrhaging red ink. In the mid-eighties the grain division in Pillsbury lost more than $200 million in a single year; that was a huge sum at the time. I imagine that many of our competitors were in the same position. We were only a medium sized grain company: the bigger companies must have lost even more. Every single company in the grain business at that time was losing money.

“The management group at Pillsbury did a study to answer the question, “When will the surplus railcars and barges rust away to the point where they go to scrap, or when will demand pick up enough to use those cars?” The answer the group came up with was sometime around 1999/2000! It was a surprisingly  good projection. The excess capacity situation continued through the 1990s as well, although of course to a lesser extent than in the 1980s. But boy, were the 1980s bad! We all suffered! We had all over-expanded!

“When Pillsbury sold their grain merchandising operations in 1984 I joined Ferruzzi down in New Orleans, managing their feed grain export business in Myrtle Grove Louisiana.

“We are all dependent on the market in this business. You can’t dictate what sort of profit margin you can obtain. You can only extract whatever profit margins the market will allow, and back then it wasn’t allowing any. During my time at Ferruzzi, many of the vessels we were loading had negative fobbing margins. The entire industry was in a down cycle and incurred negative profitability—negative fobbing margins. We were paying more for the barges and the railcars than we were getting back from many of the ships we were exporting.

“We closed our facility for two months in an attempt to stop the losses, but the fixed costs of maintaining the facility were higher than we expected. We found that it was better to continue throughput loading, and have at least some revenue coming through to cover some of our variable costs.

“That rule still applies today; it is better to keep facilities running, even at low throughput margins, than to close them. It is better to try to extract some revenue to, at least, cover something against variable expenses, than to have no revenue and still have to pay your full overhead costs. So we opened the elevator again, but things didn’t really get better.

I left Ferruzzi in 1986 and took  a job with Bartlett Grain Co in Kansas City Missouri, where I managed their cross-country grain trading group and export grain operations for 17 years.”

I asked Jay if the Carter grain embargo in January 1980 had made the situation worse.

“The US has had two grain embargoes,” he explained. “ One was under the Nixon administration, the other under Jimmy Carter. They were effectively soybean export embargoes. Both were very detrimental to the US grain industry. The Nixon and Carter embargoes motivated the Japanese to go to South America and invest capital in the development of the South American soybean industry.”

“Wouldn’t that have happened anyway?” I asked.

“It would have,” Jay replied, “but not as quickly, or on such scale. We created our own competition by imposing those two embargoes.

“Is history repeating itself now?” I asked.

“I have no doubts that history is repeating itself with the current trade war with China. We are once again helping to create our own competition. China has been put in a very difficult situation in terms of grain, both politically and economically. The Chinese are almost certainly saying to themselves that they can no longer depend on the US as a reliable supplier, and they will certainly try and diversify their buying options. China is already investing in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, in Russia and the Black Sea looking to encourage soybean production outside of the US.

“We are once again creating our own competition and that won’t be reversible. We will see grain production increase around the world, and that will make it more difficult for US grain farmers for next ten or twenty years, and beyond.”

“But to what extent can China find alternative sources of supply of beans?” I asked. “I know that the Black Sea region, particularly Ukraine, has expanded corn production,” I continued, “but is corn a substitute for soy?”

“No they are not interchangeable. Animal feed has a percentage of starch, usually from corn, but you also need protein, and that comes from the soya meal.

“China has a substantial soybean crushing industry that has to be fed by imports. The country only produces 2-3 million tonnes of beans each year, pretty much all of which goes to direct human consumption. They must import the vast majority of their oil seed needs every year.

 “You can grow corn in a lot of places, but it is a  bit more difficult to grow soybeans. Then again, you have the seed technology companies that are coming up with better, shorter-season soybean varieties that can do well in colder climates such as Canada and Eastern Russia, areas that have previously not previously been able to grow soybeans.

“No one is predicting that these new areas will ever be major oilseed exporters. They will sell a few million tonnes here and there, but nowhere near the 85 plus million tonnes that China needs each year. China will have to depend on South America and the US, but with a growing percentage of that coming from South America.”

“After you left Ferruzzi they tried to squeeze the soybean futures market in Chicago. They failed, and the company went out of business. Is there is a danger that history repeats itself in that sense as well?”

“Unfortunately, squeezed margins may have prompted some trading companies to try and replace that lost income by taking bigger risks in the futures markets or on the flat price. This has rarely  worked.

“I have been in the business for 45 years and I have seen some great companies, Continental Grain, Cook Industries, and André either go bankrupt or exit the grain business. The ones that went out of business did so because someone speculated, took overly big risks, didn’t hedge. André got out of the business after big losses in their soybean department. Cook Industries went bankrupt because of bad positions on crush spreads in soybeans. Even Conti’s sale to Cargill followed losses in the Russian bond market.  It was always something foolish.”

© Commodity Conversations ®

Women in Commodities

Isis Almeida is a senior reporter covering agricultural commodities for Bloomberg in Chicago, writing about everything from cocoa to sugar, wheat to soybeans, and animal protein markets. In her current role, she covers markets globally and also follows some of the top companies in the industry. Isis joined Bloomberg in 2011 as a soft-commodities reporter in London.

She has also covered European power and gas markets and global LNG. Prior to Bloomberg, she covered biofuels for S&P Global Platts and was also a copy editor for Dow Jones Newswires. A native of Brazil, Isis has lived in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, France and the U.K. before moving to the U.S.

Hello Isis, thank you for participating in our “Women in Commodities” series. Tell me, does being a woman make your job harder?

I think being a woman has advantages and disadvantages, and that’s no different for men. Women are in many cases better listeners and better at gauging personalities. That can make building trust quicker and easier.

I understand that Bloomberg has a programme, New Voices, to expand female sources. Can you tell me a little about that?

Yes, the New Voices programme is aimed at increasing our representation of female sources and other diverse experts across our platforms. Journalists track stories that cite or quote a woman expert. We also have a global database of women experts that includes more than 2,300 names now.

What is Bloomberg doing specifically to promote gender equality in the workplace and among sources?

In order to help increase the number of women interviewed across platforms, Bloomberg began funding a media training program for women executives in business and finance.

The company is also committed to promoting gender and diversity efforts on several fronts, in the newsroom and beyond.

You have recently moved to Chicago. That sounds like a great promotion, but a challenging one. Can you tell us more about that move? How is it going?

I had been covering agricultural commodities from London for the best part of the past 8 years and moving to the U.S. was a great chance for me to experience the American market first hand. Chicago is the centre of agriculture trading, especially for grains and oilseeds. And it’s also not far from New York, where a lot of the soft-commodity traders are located.

Being here enables me to expand my knowledge and source base, making me a better and more well rounded reporter. It also gives me the opportunity to work with a different set of people, which brings a whole new challenge.

The commodity world is said to be predominantly male: has that presented any particular difficulties?

I would say the leadership in commodities is predominantly male. I think remaining professional and objective is key to gaining respect in any industry you cover, whether you are a man or woman.

 What do you think the commodity trading companies should do to promote more women?

One thing that catches my eye is that as agricultural commodity traders refocus to be more integrated food companies, more women are starting to work at them.

Louis Dreyfus’ boss recently said that they have a gender-equal policy. Do you think that trading companies should have positive discrimination towards women?

I think we are seeing more companies (and that includes commodity and non-commodity firms) train their staff to be more aware of unconscious bias, which is already a step toward achieving gender balance and diversity.

Thank you Isis for your time!

© Commodity Conversations ®

A Conversation with Dan Basse: Part Two

Do you think that ASF—African Swine Disease, is a bigger problem globally than the trade wars?” And what is your Chinese import number for beans?

We are at 84 million tonnes, and we are holding that steady for the year ahead. There is a range of estimates for the number of hogs in China, somewhere between 470 and 600 million. Most of us believe in a number of around 550 million. There is no census, but more than half the world’s hog herd in China. That’s what makes ASF so important in terms of the grain industry.

The biggest farms in China could be 50,000 head, and I understand that there are plans to have farms as large as 100,000 head. You also have the backyard farmer that may have two or three hogs. It is all over the range in terms of sizes and shapes. I suspect that in the longer term ASF will lead to the backyard farmer getting out of hogs, and the industry will become increasingly commercialised. It will be the norm to have herds of 50,000 to 200,000 head on vertically integrated operations.

The point is that China was our only consistent annual demand increase, somewhere between 5 and 7 million tonnes of soybeans each and every year. Now with ASF that demand growth has now gone. Poultry and aquaculture production is increasing, so that will stabilise bean imports going forward. But again the key is that Chinese demand is not increasing. Parts of West Africa are helping us in wheat, but the volumes are not significant. Corn may be better placed with the increase in Chinese demand for ethanol, but again that won’t be significant.”

But couldn’t the Chinese replace bean imports with pork imports? Could we feed our surplus beans to domestic pigs and then export the meat to China?

That is the hope for the future. We estimate that the US could eventually export 40,000 hogs per day to China, but for the moment we are nowhere close to that. The Chinese producers are liquidating their domestic hogs and this is depressing domestic prices. So the import margins don’t work. But at some stage that will end, and imports should again become profitable, first from the EU and then from the US. That could happen as early as late summer here. You could also see China importing more poultry, beef and even fish.

Staying on the subject of meat, do you concur with the view that Russian grain exports will peak as the country builds up their domestic meat production?

I don’t think that Russian grain exports have peaked. The Russians have been trying to build up their livestock and poultry herds for some time now and they have also struggled with ASF. The disease moved across Africa, on through Europe, then Russia, and now into China. So the Russians have some of the same issues. I believe it will be a while before the Russians export a significant amount of meat. They will do some trade into Kazakhstan or North-western China, but their herd expansion needs to be more robust, particularly in hogs.

The Europeans have learned to live with ASF; the Russians are trying to learn to live with it. The Chinese will try to do the same. Pharmaceutical companies have spent millions of dollars on trying to find a cure or a vaccine for the disease, but so far have come up with nothing. It is an old disease, first discovered in the early 1900s in South Africa. It is very virulent. I call it the Ebola of the swine industry because the organs bleed from the inside. We are at least five years away from a vaccine or antidote.”

What about lab based meat, or the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets? Is that a concern for grain and oilseed farmers?

Lab-based meat is rather like cellulosic ethanol; we can do it relatively well in the test tube, but it is difficult to scale up to commercial production. I believe that we are still 10-20 years away from the moment when we can really scale this to a point where it has an impact on global agriculture. As for plant-based meat, veggie burgers and the like use pea protein.

What about the anti-gluten movement—is it affecting wheat demand?

It hasn’t had a sizeable impact. In the rich western nations there is some drop in bread and carbohydrate demand, but we are seeing more demand coming in from Africa. On a global basis, wheat demand is still increasing at an annual rate of about 1.7 percent.

And what about the trend towards organic production?

US farmers are looking for alternative markets, including organic grains. But we don’t see demand for organic production having any significant impact on global grain flows.

We are more worried by current developments regarding glycophosphate. There are now 1,300 cases pending against Monsanto and their parent company Bayer. You have to wonder if the EPA won’t one date ban the product, or whether Bayer will remove it from the market because of liabilities. Remember, food companies are now testing for it in their products.

If they did remove or ban it, it would be a significant change in global agricultural production. We don’t have a cheap substitute. So if you were to ask me what could change our world, then the answer has to be glycophosphate.

If it were banned or withdrawn from the market today, what effect would it have on global grain production?”

There isn’t a good substitute except for manual or mechanical cultivation to remove weeds. Cultivators were widely used to remove weeds around crops until the introduction of glycohosphate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If it were banned or removed from the market today, we would probably go back to more crop rotations to keep weeds and insects at bay.

It is a big deal. We could lose 15 to 20 percent in yields. And of course, if we go back to tilling we would have more carbon in the atmosphere, and we would have to have more passes over the fields. And we would have to bring in more land to produce the same amount of food.

What are the other challenges facing the sector?

We believe that climate change is having more and more of an impact every year. As both Poles warm, the Jet Stream has more angulations, leading to weather patterns getting “stuck”. If you look at 2018, much of Eastern Europe and Western Russia had hot dry weather, while Reykjavik in Iceland only saw three days of sunshine during the whole summer.

Weather patterns tend to get stuck. The temperature gradients between the Poles are lacking, and this leads to lots of rain or lots of dryness. We are seeing this currently in the central US where cold and wet weather is impacting plantings.

Climate change is real; you can see it in the data. It is already affecting grain production and will continue to do so. However, the sun is dramatically cooling, and this could have an impact later if the planet cools.

What about the grain merchants: are there any signs that they might see better margins in the near future?

I am afraid that the grain merchants may have to put up with low margins for a few more years. We don’t see any change in that. It is the globalisation of supply with producers in both hemispheres. The buyers have become more short term in nature. The consolidation among the merchants will continue.

Farmers also have more information than they used to, and farm storage has grown. Grain merchants can no longer pick them off at harvest time. Sophistication has increased all along the supply chain. There are no fools any more; everyone is well versed in where their margins should be.

Large farmers are increasingly selling directly to the end user and this is something that Blockchain may facilitate. However it is unlikely that a farmer will sell to China, so there is still a role for the international trader.

Is there anything you want to add?

Only that we are in a period of continuing technological revolution in both trading and farming. But we still see a need for good information, research and analysis.

Thank you Dan for your time!

© Commodity Conversations ®

A conversation with Dan Basse: Part One

Dan Basse is founder and CEO of AgResources

Growing up in Wisconsin, Dan Basse raised hogs on his father’s farm to put himself through Wisconsin State University. He had originally planned to be a veterinarian, but after a few years running the hog operation, he began to realise that some years he made money and he could enjoy the university life, while other years he didn’t make much money, even though his costs hadn’t changed. He told me that he was doing the same things in terms of costs, but it was all about marketing the hogs.

He began to get interested in markets to try and understand what drives prices. He took some economic courses, fell in love with the subject and switched his major from veterinarian studies to economics.

Dan how many hogs did you have when you were a student?

I had between 120 and 150 each year,” he told me. “Running the operation gave me some ideas about the business of farming. It was a good way to get a young lad into the world of agriculture. I knew that I didn’t want to be a hog farmer long term, so maybe it also encouraged me to work harder in college!

And does the farm still exist?

We still have the family farm but we now employ a farm manager to run it for us. My mother is still alive at 83, but my father passed away in 2013. The farm is located near the city of Milwaukie and we are involved in an urban restoration project there, building a few apartment buildings on some of the land. But we are still farming; we don’t have livestock anymore, but we grow vegetables and apples.

About ten years ago my wife told me to get a hobby, so I bought a dairy farm in Ohio where I raise high-end Guernsey cattle. It is an unusual cattle breed for the US, but the breed has been in my family going back three generations. We show them in fairs and have had some national champions, so it has been quite successful. I enjoy it. It is a good way for me to get away from my consulting business and enjoy the rural life.

Are the cattle grass-fed?

Yes. They are largely grass-fed, but we still have to use about 10-15 percent of a grain mixture so that the cows get enough vitamins, along with the balanced diet, that they need for milk production. We have about 270 head of cattle, so it is a relatively small business.

I have some clients with farms as large as 40,000 head. The average in the US is probably around 900 head, so my operation is small. The trend in the dairy sector has been from small to large operations, a mix of corporate and family-owned. The big problem we have in the US at the moment is finding help; the labour market is so tight. That is a constraining factor on the dairy sector, even for us with our three employees.

You founded AgResource in 1987 at the age of 30. Was it a success from the start?

Yes! Within the first couple of weeks I had 600 clients through a new entity called DTN, Dataline Transmission Network. At that time farmers didn’t have access to price quotes, and I was one of the first on the DTN service to provide research. The owners of DTN told me that no one would ever pay me the $50 per month that I was charging for my research, but they were wrong. Businesses need good research. Today we have over 1,200 clients in 87 countries.

In your opinion, what makes a good analyst?

First, you need the ability to take large amounts of data and to put it into a format that is sensible and consistent. Second, you need the ability to get on with people. You have to have contacts within the industry to bounce ideas back and forth. Having the data is one thing, but you also have to have ground level input from real people: market participants, farmers, traders, governments etc. So a good analyst has not only to understand data, but also to understand people and what drives them. Third, you need the ability to write and to communicate your research in a readable, interesting manner. It’s a rare combination of skills.

Economics is our preferred subject of study when we look for an analyst —normally a Masters Degree or a PhD. A farm background helps.

Dan, you are among the leading analysts in the grain sector. What do you think first made your reputation as an analyst?

There are two occasions that come to mind. The first was the Carter grain embargo when we quickly understood that the US government would be buying up a lot of the surplus grain stocks.

The second was the biofuel build outs and the way that the mandates in the US, EU and elsewhere would lead to a sharp increase in demand. You could smell, taste and put your fingers in it in terms of projecting future grain demand. It was therefore relatively easy to see the bull markets that enveloped the grain markets from 2007 to 2014.

It then became equally as easy to see that agricultural markets would begin to struggle as the biofuel industry matured. We lost that demand driver while at the same time productivity and yields continued to improve.

The current situation is less clear. Trade wars are not as clear as biofuel mandates. The future in terms of politics is far more difficult to predict.”

Do you think the Chinese ethanol program could be the next driver for global grain demand?

We think it will drive some demand, but it is not clear how quickly the program can be implemented. It should lead to 37 to 45 million tonnes of addition annual corn demand. That will ultimately deplete Chinese stocks by 2021, and led to increased imports after that date. But unfortunately when you look at corn yields and technologically, the industry is advancing faster than we thought it would. Yields are increasing faster than demand. But that Chinese ethanol demand will of course be helpful to the world corn market.

In the 1960s and 1970s we were all worried about having enough food to feed the world. And that repeated itself in the early 2000s with the growth of biofuels and the food versus fuel debate.

If you do some long term modelling of population growth and farm yields, we could start to run out of agricultural farmlands around 2050. Until then, I don’t see really what, apart from a weather problem, could alter the situation. I can’t see where the next demand driver will come from. Until we find one, any rallies in price are supply-based, weather etc. I can’t see demand catching up with supply until we get to 2025 or beyond.

Could biodiesel come to the rescue of the US soybean producers?

We have seen record demand recently for biodiesel. It is mandated, so that demand trend will persist. At some point it may become mature in the same way that ethanol demand matured. We believe that world energy demand will peak somewhere between 2029 and 2031. As we start to use more electric vehicles biofuel demand will slow, but for the moment it keeps gliding upwards.

The US has anti-dumping cases against a number of biodiesel producers, so we have been trying to keep supply out of the domestic market.”

Have GM crops aggravated these surpluses? Looking back, could you argue that the world didn’t, or doesn’t, need GM crops to feed itself?

I think we need GM crops to feed the world, particularly as population continues to grow. The problem that has occurred is that farmers always overreach when they see profitability; they have bought in more land than we needed. It is not just GM that has enhanced yields—it is also farm technology, GPS, drones etc, as well as better fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides.

Looking back to the 1800s, it has always been demand shifts, whether war, biofuels or the growth of Asia that have jump started our grain demand. Our current trade wars are disruptive in terms of flows of grain rather than overall grain demand. So it is a question of shifting the chairs around the table, rather than putting more food on the table.

© Commodity Conversations ®