Lawmakers Exploring Issue of Foreign Ownership of U.S. Farmland

Food Security is National Security.

Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow opening up a special hearing the other day to explore how foreign ownership of us farmland and food related companies might be a threat to national security, and if so, what to do about it. It’s an interesting, controversial issue and we’ll hear more about it on this edition of Agriculture USA. I’m Gary Crawford.

Opinions on the issue of foreign ownership of us farmland and other ag related businesses vary widely Some say the amount of us farmland owned by China, for example, is only one half of 1% of all US ag land owned by interest outside the US, and so that may not be a threat. Others such as Montana’s Senator Jon Tester disagree, especially when it comes to specific countries.

When we’re talking about the Chinese Communist Party, putting up a Corn Milling plant within miles of a sensitive Air Force Base. We need to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Because quite honestly, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, they are not friends of ours. They want to make us less than what we are today. So we shouldn’t allow these bad actors to be on our soil. Honestly, the fact is, is that if they’re there to have impacts on our food supply, that’s bad business. If they’re there to spy on us, they shouldn’t be allowed to spy on us anywhere in the world and certainly not on our own soil.

Like USDA Deputy Undersecretary Gloria Montano Greene told lawmakers that while many people believe the US Department of Agriculture should go ahead, just move in and tightly restrict foreign purchases of us ag land. The fact is,

Our authority does not allow us to stop the selling of foreign land we do not have authority to have a decision in foreign or domestic land purchases and leases.

USDA does have the job of tracking and disclosing land deals, but the system for doing that is a complex patchwork.

There are more than 3000 County Clerk’s and recorders offices, more than 50 state systems and more than 500 sovereign tribal nations processing and tracking of land ownership and land transfer.

And this reporting process is still being done on paper. A few days ago, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about this foreign investment issue with reporters at the White House.

Well, I think there’s concern as there was in the North Dakota circumstance where the Chinese interest was purchasing land near military installation. I think there’s legitimate concerns in that space.

He said there are many angles to this issue and he also said USDA has the job of tracking land ownership changes, but it’s a very complex job again, given the current system.

I would also say that I think there’s work to be done to give us the tools to be able to do an even better job of ensuring that we know when these transactions take place. It’s complicated, but every county has their county recorder. And on any given day, somebody may walk into that recorders office and file a deed and there’s no way of knowing precisely whether or not that is a Chinese purchaser. We need to work on how we might be able to collect the information and be able to analyze that information in a timely way so that we would determine whether or not a threat exists.

And that is the big question to be answered in specific cases but also in general. Meanwhile, foreign purchases of us farm land are growing but foreign holdings still amount to a small fraction of all US farmland.

Currently, 3.1% of American agricultural land is foreign owned. Contrary to popular belief, foreign governments don’t typically own this land.

That’s Dr. David Ortega with Michigan State University. He says most of the foreign owned US farmland is owned by business interests in Canada and Europe, not by governments, not by China. Dr. Ortega also says that many people believe foreign purchases of US land are causing land prices to rise and become too expensive for small and mid-sized farmers to afford.

However, there is no clear evidence that foreign ownership is causing US farmland prices to rise.

So Dr. Ortega says right now Chinese ownership of us farmland poses little threat to US food security but he does see a threat from the Chinese from another direction.

I would consider China’s investments in Agricultural Research and Technology one of the biggest threats to our food security. They are currently spending five times more on research and development today than they were two decades ago in comparison here in the US, our spending and investment has fallen and it’s fallen by about a third over the last two decades. And it is about half of what China is spending and their trajectory is upward. We’re falling behind and it’s what I would consider to be one of the most serious threats to our food security is their level of investment,

Investment in agricultural science and technology not necessarily in US land. Although he says that is a growing sector. But right now it does not pose a major threat to the security of Agriculture USA. I’m Gary Crawford.