China owns little US agricultural land

China Daily Global | 2023-08-29

China owns little US agricultural land

By MAY ZHOU in Houston

Fears of China buying up land in the United States have been grabbing headlines for quite a while despite the fact that China owns very little American land.

Since 2017, a company called Flannery Associates has been buying large plots of land in an agricultural region 60 miles northeast of San Francisco near Travis Air Force Base, spending more than $800 million.

Unfamiliar with the firm, local people and some lawmakers speculated that it might be the Chinese buying the land with potential to harm US security.

However, court documents revealed recently that the land was purchased by a group of wealthy Silicon Valley investors, including the co-founders of LinkedIn and Stripe, along with other billionaire venture capitalists.

Despite the small acreage of agricultural land purchased by Chinese interests, fears and rumors of China buying up American land have prompted legislative moves from state legislatures to the federal government.

By the end of May, at least 33 states had introduced some form of alien land and property bill to exclude Chinese from purchasing land or even homes, according to Asian Pacific American Justice. While some bills died, at least 12 states passed them into law.

At the federal level, the US Senate voted in late July to block businesses based in China, Russia, North Korea and Iran from purchasing farmland in the United States out of concern that Chinese entities are creating a national security risk by acquiring swaths of US farmland, with some near sensitive sites.

However, an extensive review by NBC News of thousands of documents filed with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed previous reports that the total amount of US agricultural land owned by Chinese interests is less than 1 percent of foreign-owned land.

In total, the Chinese ownership is rather minuscule at less than 0.03 percent of total US agricultural land of 1.3 billion acres.

The review also found that very few purchases were made by Chinese buyers in the past year and a half. In purchases in 35 states reviewed by NBC News, USDA data showed 11 purchases by Chinese entities, with total acreage below 1,400 from Jan 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023.

The review revealed that in the same 1 1/2-year period, most of the transactions were European wind-power companies leasing land from US farmers to build wind turbines. One Italian wind company alone disclosed 40 new leases of farmland in one rural Illinois county. That same company had leases in at least four other states.

Some notable purchases made by Chinese entities include 186 acres that Smithfield Foods purchased in 2022 and 2023 in Missouri and North Carolina. The company was acquired by a Chinese firm in 2013 and owns about 128,000 acres of US land.

"There are important issues to be addressed between the US and China," Jim Monroe, Smithfield's vice-president of corporate affairs, told NBC News. "Ownership of US agricultural land is not one of them."

Another China-acquired company, Syngenta Group, filed a report that it bought a total of 772 acres across Iowa, Florida and California. However, those purchases had already been reported to the USDA when they were made under the company's former owner, a Swiss company. Syngenta was bought by a Chinese company in 2017.

Saswato Das, a spokesperson for Syngenta, told NBC News that the company owns or leases a total of 6,000 acres in the US, and a significant portion of it is being used for research as required by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fufeng USA, a Hong Kong company, bought 365 acres in North Dakota but didn't disclose its purchases to the USDA until it became news. Its proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base raised alarms in Washington. The size of the land is less than a quarter the average size of a family farm in North Dakota.

Eric Chutorash, COO of Fufeng USA, dismissed concerns that the plant could be used to spy on the Air Force base. "I can't imagine anyone that we hire that's going to even do that," Chutorash told NBC News. Nevertheless, development of the Fufeng plant was stopped by local, state and federal officials.

The review showed that roughly 3.1 percent or 400 million acres of US agricultural land is owned by foreign entities, about half of which is forest.

Canadian interests rank No 1 with the ownership of about one-third of all foreign-owned agricultural land in the US.
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