How US farmland became a battleground in the fight against China

Chinese investors own about .03 percent of America’s farmland, according to federal data. But their land purchasing is becoming a major issue as politicians at the state and federal level ramp up their fight against perceived threats from China.

In the past couple of months, lawmakers in more than two dozen states have passed or considered legislation restricting Chinese purchases of U.S. farmland.

And former President Trump has promised that if he retakes the White House, he will ban Chinese investors from buying U.S. farmland and other critical infrastructure, and force sales of their current holdings.

“China has been spending trillions of dollars to take over the crown jewels of the United States’s economy,” Trump said in a campaign video in January.

“To protect our country, we need to enact aggressive new restrictions on Chinese ownership of any vital infrastructure in the United States, including energy, technology, telecommunications, farmland, natural resources, medical supplies and other strategic national assets.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed multiple bills this month that prohibit Chinese citizens from purchasing land in the state. Last month, the North Carolina House passed a bill that would ban the governments of “foreign adversaries” from purchasing agricultural land as well as any land within 25 miles of a military installation. And the Texas Senate passed a bill last month that would ban citizens of China from buying property, with certain exceptions.

Lawmakers on the federal level are also pushing legislation to block China from buying farmland. A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill, known as the PASS act, that would prohibit nationals of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from buying U.S. agricultural land or investing in American agricultural businesses.

Other legislation focuses specifically on the Chinese government. The House easily passed an amendment to the Republican’s energy bill in late March prohibiting the Chinese Communist Party from purchasing U.S. farmland or land used for renewable energy. The broader bill was dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

National security threat?

Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland has increased fivefold over the past decade, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, from 69,000 acres in 2011 to almost 384,000 acres in 2021. That amounts to about 1 percent of the 3 percent of all U.S. farmland owned by foreign nationals.

The rate of this increase has not been even. A large portion of the increase came from a single purchase in 2013, when the Chinese company WH Group bought Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U.S.

After that, the amount of U.S. farmland owned by Chinese investors remained largely stagnant until 2019. Chinese-owned farmland increased by more than 136 thousand acres between 2019 and 2021, but this was almost entirely from acquisitions by U.S. companies with Chinese shareholders.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has sought to make China a central focus, creating a select committee on “strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.”

One of the Republicans on the committee, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), has repeatedly introduced legislation to prohibit the Chinese government from buying U.S. agricultural land.

“I’ve always said that food security is literally national security,” Newhouse said at the committee’s first hearing in late February.

Former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who testified at the hearing, agreed that this issue is cause for concern. He said the Chinese government is engaging in a concerted effort to make U.S. agriculture dependent on China.

“I describe in my written testimony the three Cs of co-option, coercion and concealment,” he said. “Co-opt by trying to build dependencies from U.S. agriculture on the Chinese market. And then, hey, once your in, then to use that for coercive purposes.”

However, a 2021 analysis by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that foreign purchases of U.S. agricultural land are not a major threat to U.S. food security.

“The United States currently produces more than enough food per capita, even after adjusting for food waste,” CSIS analysts Jamie Lutz and Caitlin Welsh wrote. “Food insecurity among U.S. families is primarily driven by poverty, not a lack of food.”

Newhouse’s press secretary, Mike Marinella, said in an interview that even though Chinese investors currently own only a small portion of American farmland, the U.S. should be concerned about what could happen in the future.

“We don’t want to have to buy our food from China,” Marinella said.

Another area of concern is Chinese land purchases near military infrastructure. In 2021, Texas lawmakers passed legislation to prohibit a company owned by a Chinese billionaire from building a wind farm on 15,000 acres of ranchland near a U.S. Air Force base.

That same year, Chinese food manufacturer Fufeng Group purchased 300 acres of farmland near Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota to build a corn mill, which the Pentagon deemed a threat to national security.

Eric Chutorash, the chief operating officer of Fufeng Group’s U.S. subsidiary, repeatedly denied that the plans posed a security risk, as the company is publicly traded and not affiliated with the Chinese government. In February, however, the Grand Forks City Council voted unanimously to block the project.

Fueling anti-Asian sentiments

Some critics of efforts to limit Chinese purchases of U.S. farmland argue they could contribute to anti-Asian sentiments.

In a House Appropriations Committee hearing last year, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) criticized an amendment from Newhouse to ban companies owned wholly or in part by the Chinese government from purchasing U.S. farmland. She said singling out China would “perpetuate already rising anti-Asian hate.”

“If the concern is about U.S. national security, other countries also should be included in this conversation,” Meng said.

Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China, said the hostile rhetoric toward China can be dangerous.

“[In] our American political culture, once we identify something as threatening, we’re not very good about talking about it in a nuanced and subtle way,” he said.

Mahboubi said it is important to discuss threats posed by China in a nuanced manner, especially given the high amount of trade the U.S. conducts with China.

“We’re concerned about the implications for our food security of actions that China takes, [China could become] worried about what are the implications of their food security from actions that we take, until we’re locked in this sort of downward spiral,” Mahboubi said.

“I don’t think anyone can particularly anticipate how far it’s going to go or how damaging it could be.”

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