As the world’s population exploded over the past few decades, and is set to continue growing, the demand for food is only going to increase. This trend has led foreign companies, particularly Chinese companies, to invest in American agriculture in order to secure reliable food sources to feed their own populations. While this may seem like a win-win situation on the surface, there are serious concerns about the long-term implications of allowing foreign companies to have a significant stake in our food supply, especially as the world sleepwalks into a global food crisis in 2023.
This is why Texas State Representative Cody Harris’s recently proposed House Bill 1075, which aims to stop foreign governments and companies from purchasing or leasing U.S. agricultural lands in Texas, is so important. Though the bill may sound extreme, the concerns that animate it are very real and merit some serious discussion and consideration in Austin.
First and foremost, it is important to review the facts as they stand. The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 requires that “requires that a foreign person who acquires, disposes of, or holds an interest in United States agricultural land must disclose such transactions and holdings to the Secretary of Agriculture.” This information is processed and used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prepare a report summarizing its finding. The latest such report reveals that foreign ownership of U.S. farmland almost doubled between 2010 and 2020. Texas alone is the nation’s leader in this regard, as it has the largest amount of foreign-held U.S. agricultural land with over 4.7 million acres.
Thankfully, much of this foreign ownership comes from countries that are friends of the United States: Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, and Germany. Yet there is an increasing trend of America’s adversaries also buying up farmland. China, for example, holds (as of the start of 2021) around 352,140 acres of land, which amounts to less than 1 percent of all foreign-held acres. While this may not sound like much, keep in mind that in 2010 this number was a mere 13,720 acres.
Further complicating the issue is the numbers being reported by the Department of Agriculture are inaccurate and incomplete. An in-depth media investigation attempted to match the USDA’s data with county assessor records and found many discrepancies. For example, a company owned by Chinese billionaire and former military officer Sun Guangxin planned to develop a wind farm in Texas on 140,000 acres he bought. Though the USDA’s data shows that Gunagxin’s company owns land in Borden and Scurry counties, it doesn’t account for land in Val Verde county, while the Val Verde County Assessor’s Office does. Numerous other specific examples abound, and the investigation also found that the USDA’s data “does not fully account for business models that rely on land leasing agreements and investment funds where the land user is a different party than the actual owner.”
That the United States federal government does not really know how much American land is really owned by foreign individuals or companies is already concerning. What makes the situation scary is how this foreign land ownership can translate into a variety of national security threats.
Consider a report put out this year by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) detailing China’s interests in U.S. agriculture. Not only does the report admit that the USDA does not really know how much land is owned by foreign individuals and companies, but it goes further in noting that “Chinese firms may easily circumvent current reporting requirements…and could repurpose the purchased land with little concern of repercussions from [the] USDA due to the lack of enforcement measures in place.” Beyond that, the report lists a number of other China-specific U.S. agricultural concerns: how the theft of U.S. intellectual property harms American agriculture; how the Chinese Communist Party is developing “undue leverage” over U.S. supply chains through business consolidations and purchases of American agribusinesses; and of course, the risk presented by foreign entities purchasing land located near U.S. military or intelligence installations. That last concern in particular is a reference to a Chinese business, the Fufeng Group, and its intent to build a wet corn mill near Grand Forks, North Dakota. The mill would only be 12 miles away from Grand Forks Air Force Base, which “houses some of the United States’ top intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.”
All in all, it is clear that the United States needs to take important steps toward ensuring the long-term security and sustainability of our agriculture industry. While Representative Harris’s House Bill 1075 may go somewhat overboard in calling for a complete ban on foreign ownership of Texas agricultural land, it should certainly serve as a starting point for a discussion on how to handle the current situation.
A more nuanced and comprehensive bill would perhaps do three things. First, rather than a blanket ban, Austin should explore implementing a cap on foreign ownership of Texan farmland. Second, Texas should create a state-level agricultural land ownership database that provides more accurate information than what the USDA offers. Third and finally, the Texas Department of Agriculture should be strengthened so that it can effectively punish and deter a failure to properly report foreign-owned agricultural holdings.
In any case, it is imperative that we act now to safeguard the future of our nation’s food supply and ensure that it remains in the hands of responsible and accountable actors. Texas has the opportunity to lead the way on this issue and should use the introduction of House Bill 1075 as an opportunity to do so.
Carlos Roa is the Managing Editor of The National Interest.