Lawmakers look at ways to stop Chinese firms from expanding purchases of American farmland

Lawmakers look at ways to stop Chinese firms from expanding purchases of American farmland
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Over the past few years, Chinese investors have been buying tens of thousands of acres of U.S. farmland as the trade war heats up — and lawmakers are trying to pump the brakes on it. 

According to Politico, Chinese investors owned roughly 192,000 acres of U.S. agricultural land valued at approximately $1.9 billion, as of the start of 2020. Chinese land ownership in the U.S. falls short of other foreign countries that own land and property in the U.S., but the growth of Chinese land ownership is part of a larger trend as China continues to buy up agricultural land in other countries. 

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that China’s investments into agricultural land in other nations had increased tenfold in less than a decade. The USDA reports that the growth parallels China’s emergence as a major importer of agricultural commodities, and that the focus of investments in China have been shifting from farming and raw materials to business acquisition.

“According to Chinese investment statistics, overseas ventures in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries soared from $300 million in 2009 to $3.3 billion in 2016,” the report stated. “But these totals understate the magnitude of Chinese agricultural-focused foreign assets because the statistics exclude the acquisition of food processing and trading companies classified in manufacturing and service sectors. A more complete count issued by China’s Ministry of Agriculture said the country had over 1,300 agricultural, forestry, and fisheries enterprises with registered overseas investments of $26 billion, at the end of 2016.”

The explosion of Chinese purchasing power and eventual control of U.S. farmland has prompted some Republicans to sound the alarm. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation last week, former Vice President Mike Pence stated, “America cannot allow China to control our food supply,” calling for politicians across the aisle to take action to protect American farmers, and demanding that President Joe Biden put an end to “all farm subsidies for land owned by foreign nationals.”

Iowa and Minnesota, both major agricultural states, have passed laws imposing restrictions on foreign ownership of farmland. Other states have yet to follow suit.

“The current trend in the U.S. is leading us toward the creation of a Chinese-owned agricultural land monopoly,” Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) said at a recent House Appropriations committee hearing, introducing an amendment to funding a bill to ban the Chinese government and its subsidiaries from buying U.S. farmland. 

Newhouse cited federal data pointing out that the Chinese government, through 812 investors, had purchased 192,000 acres of land through 2019. He said at the hearing that food chain disruptions during the pandemic raised concerns about vulnerabilities in food security and called the Chinese government’s increasing control of farmland an “immediate threat to national security.”

In response to his remarks, Democrat Rep. Grace Meng, a leader of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, condemned Newhouse’s amendment and described it as “a dangerous and slippery slope that would perpetuate already rising anti-Asian hate.”

“Can we honestly say that this amendment, which singles out one country, won’t have repercussions on Asian-Americans across our country?” asked Meng. “Let’s include all of our adversaries.”

“This is about communist China,” said Newhouse. “This is not about calling attention in any negative way to any group of people in this country.”

The Washington Post reports:

She questioned why Newhouse did not include other countries whose governments are hostile to U.S. interests, such as Iran and Russia.

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said they became alarmed about Newhouse’s amendment because an earlier draft included a ban on owning farmland for all Chinese nationals, which they feared could include some U.S. immigrants who are not yet American citizens.

“That sounded like alien land laws,” Chu said, referring to laws passed by some Western states in the early 1900s to prevent immigrant farmers of Asian descent from owning land.

Other Republicans, including Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Mario Díaz-Balart, spoke up in support of Newhouse’s proposal. The subcommittee eventually approved Newhouse’s amendment after he and Meng agreed to talk about their disagreement in private. 

“They had a positive conversation,” an aide to Newhouse told the Washington Post. “Both understand and agree that China is an adversary, and we all know that. This amendment was never about calling out one group. . . . It is about making sure we are protected.”

According to the USDA, there are 896.6 million acres, or 1.4 million square miles, of farmland in the United States.

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