China Is Buying Up US Farmland, But How Much Isn’t Clear

(Bloomberg) -- America is seeing more and more of its most fertile land snapped up by China and other foreign buyers, yet problems with how the US tracks such data means it’s difficult to know just how much, according to a report.

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Foreign ownership and investment in property such as farmland, pastures and forests jumped to about 40 million acres in 2021, up 40% from 2016, according to the US Department of Agriculture data. But an analysis conducted by the US Government Accountability Office — a non-partisan watchdog that reports to Congress — found mistakes in the data, including the largest land holding linked with China being counted twice. Other issues include the challenge of enforcing a US law that requires foreigners to self-report such purchases, the report said, citing USDA.

Outside ownership of American cropland is drawing attention from Washington as concern rises about possible threats to food supply chains and other national security risks. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike have called for a crackdown on sales of farmland to China and other countries.

“Without improving its internal processes, USDA cannot report reliable information to Congress or the public about where and how much US agricultural land is held by foreign persons,” the report said.

Read more: Senator Calls for Ban on Chinese Land Purchases Following Report

The GAO made six recommendations, including that the USDA share more timely and complete data with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, an interagency panel led by the Treasury Department that reviews foreign business deals.

Another suggestion calls for USDA to ensure its reporting of agricultural foreign investments under a 1978 federal law is complete. USDA said it would need more money to create and maintain an online filing portal, according to the report.

“The GAO’s recommendations would require changes by Congress, starting with the funding needed to increase staff and modernize our processes,” Allan Rodriguez, a USDA spokesperson, said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg on Friday. “Any system for tracking land purchases and owners would be complicated, expensive, and create a potential risk to producer privacy, the price of agricultural land, and individual American seller interests.”

(Adds US Department of Agriculture’s response starting in the sixth paragraph.)

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