Food and agribusiness have a massive economic, social, and environmental footprint—the $5 trillion industry represents 10 percent of global consumer spending, 40 percent of employment, and 30 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. Although sizable productivity improvements over the past 50 years have enabled an abundant food supply in many parts of the world, feeding the global population has reemerged as a critical issue. If current trends continue, by 2050, caloric demand will increase by 70 percent, and crop demand for human consumption and animal feed will increase by at least 100 percent. At the same time, more resource constraints will emerge: for example, 40 percent of water demand in 2030 is unlikely to be met. Already, more than 20 percent of arable land is degraded. Moreover, food and energy production are competing, as corn and sugar are increasingly important for both. Such resource scarcity could lead to political unrest on a large scale if left unaddressed. Agricultural technologies that raise productivity even in difficult conditions and the addition of land for cultivation in Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America may ease the burden, but meeting the entire demand will require disruption of the current trend.

Sensing an opportunity, strategic and financial investors are racing to capture value from technological innovation and discontinuities in food and agriculture. Since 2004, global investments in the food-and-agribusiness sector have grown threefold, to more than $100 billion in 2013, according to our analysis. Food-and-agribusiness companies on average have demonstrated higher total returns to shareholders (TRS) than many other sectors: the TRS of more than 100 publicly traded food-and-agribusiness companies around the world increased an average of 17 percent annually between 2004 and 2013, compared with 13 percent for energy and 10 percent for information technology.

However, finding the right investment opportunity is not easy. Food-and-agribusiness investing requires a deep understanding of specific crops, geographies, and complex value chains that encompass seeds and other inputs, production, processing, and retailing. Many of the relevant investment opportunities are in geographies unfamiliar to some investors, and their profitability rests not only on crop yields but also on how different parts of the value chain perform.

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