WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is renewing a push to intensify oversight of foreign purchases of U.S. farmland, citing concerns over recent acquisitions by Chinese buyers.
Legislation set to be introduced in both the House and Senate this week would beef up scrutiny of non-U.S. buyers of U.S. farmland, putting the agricultural sector squarely in the domain of the federal panel that reviews investments for national-security concerns.
It would also add the agriculture secretary to the panel and make clear that its goal includes protecting the U.S. agricultural supply chain from foreign interference.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen an alarming increase in foreign purchases of farmland and food companies, particularly by China,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R., Ala.), who is introducing the legislation in the Senate along with GOP Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Mike Braun of Indiana, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Rick Scott of Florida. “That’s why America’s agriculture community needs to have a permanent seat at the table when our government vets foreign investment in our country.”
Rep. Ronny Jackson (R., Texas) is introducing the bill in the House, along with Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, and more than two dozen other co-sponsors.
“Direct foreign investment in American agriculture and infrastructure has skyrocketed — and the Chinese Communist Party has driven much of this growth,” Ms. Spanberger said. “In the face of significant foreign investment in American farmland, we need to recognize how foreign actors could pose potential threats to our economic strength, the competitiveness of our ag industry and our national security.”
The Chinese Embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment.
One of China’s biggest agricultural purchases in the U.S. was the $4.7 billion acquisition of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc. by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. in 2013.
More recently, China has accelerated efforts to develop its own domestic agriculture industry.
The legislation would give the secretary of agriculture a seat on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius. The panel is led by the Treasury secretary and its members include the heads of the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense, among others. Lawmakers for years have sought to add the agriculture secretary to the panel.
The panel reviews foreign investments in U.S. companies and real estate, and can advise the president to block or unwind a deal.
The legislation would designate the agricultural supply chain as critical infrastructure and critical technology, with the goal of making sure the panel has clear jurisdiction over farmland and related facilities. Currently, the panel’s oversight largely focuses on investment in U.S. businesses and some real-estate transactions.
The bill stops short of preventing Chinese or other foreign companies from acquiring U.S. farmland, as some other legislation has sought.
Lawmakers’ longstanding efforts to bolster oversight of foreign acquisitions of U.S. farmland got new impetus in December, when Cfius said it didn’t have jurisdiction to assess the purchase of roughly 370 acres in Grand Forks, N.D., by China-based Fufeng Group Ltd., which is based in China.
The company has said it plans to build a facility to make food additives and animal feed, among other products.
China owned slightly less than 1% of foreign-held U.S. agricultural land at the end of 2021, according to the latest Agriculture Department data. Canadian investors held the largest share, at 31% of foreign-held land.
Investors from the Netherlands, Italy, the U.K. and Germany collectively held another 31% of foreign-held U.S. acres. Foreign investors held a total of roughly 40 million acres, or just over 3% of all privately held agricultural land, according to the USDA.
The USDA requires foreign investors to report their purchases of U.S. agricultural land, but lawmakers and other entities have raised questions about the data’s accuracy and whether the department can track changes in how the land is later used.
Analysts and lawmakers have expressed concerns that China’s need for more arable land and its search for new ways to feed its population are pushing the country to expand its U.S. holdings, through both legal and illicit means.
Several Chinese citizens in recent years have pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal or stealing elements of U.S. agricultural technology, including trade secrets from agribusiness company Monsanto Co. and high-tech corn seeds from U.S. farm fields.
In September, President Biden ordered Cfius to heighten scrutiny of deals that may give China and other adversaries access to critical technologies or may endanger supply chains and personal data.