WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Sluggish results in its grain trading and distribution business coupled with a depressed crushing environment in China hurt agribusiness results at Bunge Ltd., sending the White Plains-based company to a loss of $27 million in the first quarter ended March 31. The loss compared with income of $170 million, equal to $1.15 per share on the common stock, in the same period a year ago.

Following the release of the results on May 1, the company’s share price fell more than 5% to $75.09 in afternoon trading, eventually closing at $75.34 for the day.

Net sales for the first quarter were $13,461 million, down 9% from $14,785 million a year ago.

The first-quarter results were lower than expected, but Soren Schroder, chief executive officer of Bunge, did his best in a May 1 conference call with analysts to paint an optimistic picture of the future for the company.

“Agribusiness should perform well,” he said. “The global environment is solid, with growth and trade in demand for oilseeds and grains. Food and ingredients, which performed as expected in the first quarter, should demonstrate sequential improvements throughout the year and deliver another record result. And despite the weak start in sugar and bioenergy, we project that we will reach break-even to slightly positive EBIT for the year, and fund all segment CapEx from operations.

“The strategic review of the sugar milling business is progressing, and options lie ahead to improve our position in this segment and returns for shareholders. Overall, we are confident that on a combined basis, agribusiness and food and ingredients will generate a 2014 return on invested capital at 1.5 percentage points above our weighted average cost of capital of 7%. So we expect significantly higher results during the rest of the year, particularly in the second half. There is no change to our stated objective of generating overall returns at 2% above cost of capital in 2015.”

Earnings before interest and tax in Bunge’s Agribusiness sector totaled $79 million in the first quarter, down 59% from $191 million in the same period a year ago. Net sales were virtually unchanged at $10,093 million, which compared with $10,774 million a year ago.

“Our overall grain volume was in line with expectations, but we expected a lower price environment, particularly for wheat, which has not materialized,” Mr. Schroder said. “Political turmoil in the Black Sea and deteriorating winter wheat conditions in the U.S. were the primary catalysts for the weak rally, which ignored the more-than-adequate global stocks.”

Milling Products EBIT fell 11% in the first quarter to $32 million from $36 million while sales were flat at $535 million.

“In our wheat milling business we did perform well in the quarter,” Drew Burke, chief financial officer of Bunge, said during the conference call. “Our Brazilian business had strong results on the back of very good margins. In our Mexican business, both the acquisitions we made this year and in prior-year performed in line with expectations and were profitable. Corn milling results were down slightly from where they had historically been.”

Edible Oil Products EBIT totaled $22 million in the quarter, down sharply from $38 million a year ago. Net sales also declined, falling 16% to $1,928 million from $2,297 million.

In Sugar and Bioenergy, Bunge sustained a loss of $64 million, which compared with EBIT of $23 million a year ago. Net sales were $844 million, down 24% from $1,113 million.

“Most of the variance in sugar environment was related to mark-to-market losses and industrial hedges,” Mr. Schroder said. “We had and still have the view that global sugar is over-supplied for the next year. And we locked in sugar places ahead of time, resulting in a negative mark-to-market of $31 million as sugar futures moved higher during the quarter. Much of these losses will reverse throughout the year. Our global trading business also had a slow start to the year, but is now back on track.

“We’ve made significant improvements to cost and operating performance across a spectrum of sugar milling KPIs (key performance indicators) that should result in lower unit costs as the crush progresses. The most significant change is the reduction in headcount of about 10% since the beginning of the year. Other improvements have been realized in harvesting productivity, industrial yields and logistics.”