House Republicans are calling for a federal investigation into foreign investment in U.S. farmland as concern grows over Chinese acquisitions that lawmakers say pose a threat to national security.
In a letter to the Government Accountability Office comptroller general Gene Dodaro on Monday, 128 lawmakers led by the top Republicans on the House Oversight and Agriculture committees, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky and Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, respectively, said current efforts to track foreign investment are unreliable and could leave the U.S. vulnerable.
“China’s ownership of U.S. farmland is a threat to our food security and national security.” Mr. Comer said in a statement. “We are calling on the Government Accountability Office to report on the scope of this threat to our food supply to inform Congress how we can best protect the security of the American people.”
Foreign investments in U.S. land have nearly doubled over the past decade, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
The USDA’s most recent report tracking foreign holdings through the end of 2020 showed an acceleration in foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land since 2015, in particular.
The report showed that foreign holdings increased at an average of 2.2 million acres annually between 2015 and 2020, up from less than one million acres per year from 2009 to 2015.
Foreign investors held 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land at the end of 2020, the USDA’s most recent figures show, accounting for 2.9% of all privately held agricultural land in the U.S. and 1.7% of the total land in the U.S.
Canadian investors own the largest share of foreign-held land in the U.S., 12.4 million acres, making up 32% of all foreign investments, followed by the Netherlands with 13%, Italy with 7% and the U.K with 6%.
China held 352,140 acres at the end of 2020, less than 1% of foreign-owned land in the U.S., according to the USDA.
But the lawmakers say the USDA figures may underestimate foreign ownership due to unreliable data collection under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA) and USDA definitions used to report foreign investments.
Foreign investors are required to self-report U.S. agricultural holdings under the AFIDA, but analysts say many investments are made through large corporate entities with muddled ownership structures.
Furthermore, lawmakers say it is not just about the quantity of land purchased by China, but the security implications posed by recent land purchases near U.S. military bases.
A Chinese firm, the Fufeng Group, last November purchased 370 acres situated approximately 12 miles from the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, which houses “some of the United States’ top intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities,” according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
A group of 50 lawmakers led by Rep. Carlos Gimenez, Florida Republican, raised concern last week that the purchase, which Fufeng said will be used for a new wet corn mill, gives the Chinese Communist Party-linked company “potential advantageous opportunities to perpetrate espionage, including actions and activities carried out under commercial cover or auspices.”
“We are concerned about the precedent this land purchase will set and its ability to serve as the model for our adversaries to encroach on American security,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The Fufeng group’s U.S. subsidiary said it has no intention of collecting intelligence on the base.
Still, Mr. Comer said the purchase adds further to “fears of foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land.”
“Concerns have also been expressed that foreign investment in U.S. farmland could result in foreign control of available U.S. farmland, especially prime agricultural lands, and possibly lead to foreign control over food production and food prices,” Mr. Comer and his colleagues wrote.
The lawmakers are calling on the GAO to probe U.S. data collection efforts under the AFIDA and recommend improvements and policy options to “strengthen reporting of foreign investment in agricultural land.”
“Americans need transparency about the federal government’s efforts to address this growing problem,” Mr. Comer said.