Lawmakers ask for review of foreign ownership of U.S. farmland

House Republicans are calling for a federal investigation into foreign ownership and investment in U.S. agricultural land.

In a letter sent to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in October, the top Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture and Oversight committees are requesting the investigation, noting current efforts to track foreign investment are unreliable and could leave the U.S. vulnerable. The lawmakers questioned whether these foreign investments, including those by China, could pose a national security threat to the U.S.

The letter was led by Reps. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) and James Comer (R-Ky.), along with over 125 other House Republicans.

“We write to request a GAO review of foreign investment in U.S. farmland and its impact on national security, trade and food security, as well as U.S. government efforts to monitor these acquisitions,” the lawmakers wrote.

They noted that foreign ownership and investment in U.S. agricultural land nearly doubled from 2010 to 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

All 50 states and Puerto Rico report having some level of foreign ownership or investment.

USDA reported that foreign individuals and entities held an interest in 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land at the end of 2020, representing 2.9% of all privately held agricultural land and 1.7% of all 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%.

Chinese investors hold 352,140 acres of American land, representing slightly less than 1% of total foreign ownership.

“While investors from Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom are regularly among the top foreign investors, investors from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have increased their investment in U.S. agriculture land,” the lawmakers wrote. “One of the largest groups of foreign investors is renewable energy companies, causing some to raise concerns that farmland is being removed from agricultural production.”

In Texas, there are no state laws restricting foreign ownership or investment of land, and the Lone Star State has the largest amount of foreign-owned acreage at 4.7 million acres, mostly owned by Canadian investors.

Maine has the second largest amount at just over 3.5 million acres, and Alabama comes in third with 1.8 million acres.

“Concerns about national security, including a Chinese company’s purchase of farmland in North Dakota near an Air Force base that is home to top-secret drone technology, drive fears of foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land,” the lawmakers wrote. “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.”

The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA) requires all foreign persons holding agricultural land in the U.S. to file a report with the U.S. government.

But the USDA figures may underestimate foreign ownership due to unreliable data collection under AFIDA and USDA definitions used to report foreign investments, the lawmakers said. Foreign investors are required to self-report U.S. agricultural holdings under the act, but analysts say that accurate data is not always provided.

The lawmakers requested the GAO conduct a study that addresses the extent of and trends in foreign investment of U.S. agricultural land, along with how the U.S. government uses the data to ensure the land is used for its intended purpose and does not pose a threat to national security.

In addition, the lawmakers what to know what procedures are in place to ensure proper disclosure of acquired agricultural land by a foreign entity and what steps are being taken to ensure data reliability.

They also want to know about improvements or policy options, including regarding national security, that are needed to strengthen reporting of foreign investment in agricultural land.

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