CHICAGO, May 24 (Reuters) - Commodity trader Glencore Plc's confirmation on Tuesday that it sought a tie up with grains trader Bunge Ltd likely signals the start of a wave of consolidation and partnering in the industry, as middlemen struggle to make profits amid a massive global food glut.
Bunge and other top grains traders -- who make money by buying, selling, storing, shipping and trading crops - are struggling to adapt to a world of oversupply.
Their supply chains have become snagged as farmers cling to their crops amid sour prices. Their margins have thinned as food and feed companies see no urgency to buy, as supplies soar for their key ingredients. New competitors are emerging, as niche firms eat into the space occupied by the grains giants, to produce GMO free, organic or other supplies that appeal to changing consumer tastes.
Glencore made the first move when it said it approached Bunge, one of the world's top grain trading houses, about a business combination.
Bunge said it is not engaged in discussions with Glencore.
The talks between Bunge and Glencore's agricultural unit focused on a North American partnership, not a sale of the entire company, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss it.
Whether through partnership or outright consolidation, the grain trading sector is poised to become the latest to face fundamental change in a troubled space. Bankruptcy filings have been rising among U.S. farmers due to low crop prices, and a frenzy of deals are poised to transform the farm chemical and seed business.
The only other immediate hope to boost traders' results? Bad weather that would damage crops, cut supply and make trading profitable again after the large harvests have driven down prices and subdued volatility essential to earnings.
"A lot of consolidation comes when you're in tough times and agriculture is certainly in tough times," said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist for brokerage INTL FCStone.
Bunge Chief Executive Officer Soren Schroder said this month that the industry needed mergers and that Bunge could take the lead.
Bunge and competitor Archer Daniels Midland Co took a beating in the stock market this month over concerns about international trading. The other two major traders, Cargill Inc and Louis Dreyfus Corp, are privately held.
Investors wiped $2.3 billion from the value of ADM on May 2 when it said massive global grain stocks were making it difficult to turn a profit trading grain globally.
A day later, Bunge's market capitalization slid $1.2 billion when it reported a sharply lower first-quarter profit.
On Tuesday, Bunge shares climbed more than 16 percent on word of Glencore's approach.
"With big volumes, low margins, prices that are very low and more sophisticated farmers with new tools both physical and financial, there are too many players," said an industry source in Buenos Aires, where top traders have operations. "It's unsustainable."
The big traders have tried to diversify away from commodities into areas with higher margins. Cargill bought fish-feed maker EWOS for 1.35 billion euros in 2015, and ADM acquired food flavorings company Wild Flavors for 2.3 billion euros in 2014.
Still, ADM CEO Juan Luciano told an investor conference last week that the company may permanently lose a "layer of profitability" in its grain business due to large harvests that have hurt margins.
An ADM spokesman also told Reuters last week the company's global trade desk suffered a small loss last year, a previously unreported detail of its results.
Gertjan van der Geer, senior investment manager at Pictet Asset Management, said he wants to see consolidation involving ADM and Bunge to stabilize earnings. The firm manages ADM and Bunge shares.
But a merger of any two of the four ABCDs could raise "enormous competition problems" with regulators in the United States, the European Union and emerging markets, said Peter Carstensen, who teaches antitrust at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Deals could instead be targeted at specific geographies or sectors, bankers and analysts said.
Dreyfus or U.S. grain handler Andersons Inc could be a takeover target, analysts said. This month, Dreyfus told Reuters it was focused on its core business but will eventually consider joint ventures. Andersons declined to comment.
"For years, we were in this status quo environment where there was nothing to even talk about," said a mergers and acquisition specialist at a major U.S. bank. Now, "if you're sitting in a boardroom somewhere and you're a buyer or a seller, you might poke your head out from under a rock."
Without deals, the industry is left waiting for a drought that could tighten supplies. But as CHS Inc's new CEO Ray Debertin said on Monday, "the weather cycles are out of our control."
(Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Karl Plume in Chicago, Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires, Gus Trompiz in Paris and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by P.J. Huffstutter and Lisa Shumaker)