New Zealand approves farm sale to Chinese group

China's Shanghai Pengxin Group is to buy the 16-property Crafar Farms group in New Zealand

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Photo illustration. New Zealand on Friday approved a Chinese company's bid to buy a bankrupt dairy farm …

New Zealand on Friday approved a Chinese company's bid to buy a bankrupt dairy farm group, in a case that has stirred heated debate about foreign land ownership.

Associate Finance Minister Jonathan Coleman said the government was allowing China's Shanghai Pengxin Group to buy the 16-property Crafar Farms group after receiving a favourable recommendation from the Overseas Investment Office.

"The combined effect of the benefits being delivered to New Zealand as a result of this transaction is substantial," he said in a statement.

The proposal has met with fierce opposition in the farm-reliant country, with critics fearing an influx of foreign investors will snap up New Zealand's prime agricultural land.

Shanghai Pengxin has offered a reported NZ$210 million ($170 million) for the North Island farms, which have a total area of about 8,000 hectares (19,700 acres).

Businessman Michael Fay, part of a rival New Zealand-based consortium that was also bidding for the farms, said 75 percent of New Zealanders opposed the sale.

"With... farm gates now wide open to cashed-up overseas investors, just how much productive land will go to offshore ownership?" he said in a statement.

"Sadly the continuing loss of our productive land is going to be an extremely high price for the farming industry and the country to pay."

New Zealand, the world's largest dairy exporter, has seen overseas interest in the sector increase as Asian countries look to shore up their food security.

Winston Peters, leader of the populist New Zealand First party, described the decision as a "betrayal" that voters would not forget.

"The whole sales process has been a shonky, jack-up job between Prime Minister John Key, his ministers, and the communist government of China," he said.

Key, who has previously expressed concern about New Zealanders becoming "tenants in their own land", has supported the sale, saying New Zealand cannot turn down investors simply because they are Chinese.

Key's Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson earlier this year said critics of the deal were "bordering on racism", arguing less than two percent of New Zealand farmland was owned by foreigners, mostly from Europe or America.

Fay's consortium succeeded in having a previous approval for the Chinese bid overturned in the High Court last February, arguing the government had overstated the benefits of the deal.

Coleman said the latest approval contained a number of conditions that would guarantee the benefits, including requiring Shanghai Pengxin to invest NZ$16 million in the farms.

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