Watchdog report warns government not keeping an eye on hostile nations buying US farmland

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a “congressional watchdog” group, roughly 40 million acres of U.S. agricultural land is now owned by foreign investors, including those from “the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.”

In a report released on Friday titled, “Foreign Investments in U.S. Agricultural Land: Enhancing Efforts to Collect, Track, and Share Key Information Could Better Identify National Security Risks,” GAO states: “Foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land grew to about 40 million acres in 2021, per USDA estimates. This can pose national security risks—such as when foreign interests buy land near U.S. military installations.”

What’s more, government agencies don’t know the full extent of the danger posed by investors from adversarial nations who are gobbling up land next to “sensitive” U.S. military bases.

GAO explains:

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not share timely data on foreign investments in agricultural land collected under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978, as amended (AFIDA). Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) agencies, including the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of the Treasury, identify and review transactions that may pose national security risks, such as the proximity of agricultural land to a sensitive military base.

USDA annually publishes selected AFIDA information online that CFIUS agencies may use when considering potential national security risks associated with agricultural land. In addition, USDA officials said they respond promptly when they receive requests for information. However, DOD officials noted they need AFIDA information that is more up-to-date and more specific, and they need to receive this information more than once a year.

USDA has requested funding to develop a real-time data system that can be accessed by other U.S. government agencies and the public. Meanwhile, sharing current data could help increase visibility into potential national security risks related to foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land.

 

“Each year, FPAC-BC [Farm Production and Conservation Business Center] publishes a Foreign Holdings of U.S. Agricultural Land report on its website, based on selected data collected from FSA-153 forms submitted pursuant to the AFIDA reporting requirement. The report includes aggregated information for U.S. states and counties,” GAO notes. “However, it does not include other information collected by USDA, such as detailed ownership information, country affiliations of all foreign investors, and locations of individual agricultural land transactions.”

“In addition, USDA officials told us that for calendar year 2023, they have been keeping a real-time log of AFIDA filing activity for investors from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea,” GAO adds. “USDA plans to include this information its 2023 AFIDA Annual Report.”

The land purchases have raised congressional concerns.

“Members of Congress have expressed concern that some foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land, such as land purchased near U.S. military bases or land purchases that could lead to foreign control of U.S. food supply chains, may have national security implications,” GAO reports. “Specifically, in 2022, members expressed concern about a U.S. subsidiary of a business from the People’s Republic of China purchasing cropland near Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, given the use of sensitive drone technology at the base.”

Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called the GAO report “troubling.”

“This troubling report from @USGAO confirms what we already know: our foreign adversaries are getting a foothold on American soil by buying up our farmland, and we need policy changes to stop it,” he wrote on X. “It’s time for the House to stop obstructing my bipartisan bill to get the job done.”

“While we learn more about the specifics around this unfolding situation, it highlights the need for Congress to do more to protect American agricultural security and prevent our foreign adversaries from controlling our country’s food supply while also gaining access to land near sensitive military sites,” Tester said, according to the Daily Mail.

“This report confirms our worst fear: the USDA has no idea who owns what land and where, and they have no plan to rectify it,” Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.)  stated on X. “Food security is national security, and we cannot allow foreign adversaries to influence our food supply while we stick our heads in the sand.”

“Data from the USDA report, released last month, shows that investors from 99 countries have a claim on US land,” the Daily Mail reports. “The list includes the Republic of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.

“Combined, investors of those adversarial nations own about 95,000 acres of agricultural land.”

“The congressional USDA report determined that Canadian investors own the largest portion of foreign-held US agricultural land with 12.8 million acres,” according to the outlet. “Following the North American country are investors from the Netherlands (4.9 million acres), Italy (2.7 million acres), the UK (2.5 million acres) and Germany (2.3 million acres).”

“The total 40.8 million acres covers agricultural land and nonagricultural land,” Daily Mail states. “Forestland accounted for 47 percent of all foreign-owned land, cropland accounted for 29 percent and pasture and other agricultural land for 22 percent. Nonagricultural land (such as homesteads and roads) accounted for two percent.”

 

Melissa Fine

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