The Biden administration is failing to properly track foreign ownership of U.S. farmlands and doesn’t appear to have a plan to begin tracking that data, according to an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
According to a GAO report detailing the findings of its investigation, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed to consistently share timely data on foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land as required under the 1978 Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA). Further, Pentagon officials told investigators, according to the report, that USDA needs to regularly provide more up-to-date and specific AFIDA data.
“Sharing current data could help increase visibility into potential national security risks related to foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land,” the GAO report, which was published late Thursday, states. “USDA implements AFIDA across field offices and headquarters, but its processes to collect, track, and report key information are flawed.”
The GAO investigation concluded that USDA collects AFIDA data on paper forms filed with county or federal offices, but that its process is “unclear and challenging to implement.” And USDA also has no plans and timelines to create an online AFIDA database despite Congress mandating the agency create one by 2025.
Finally, the government watchdog agency’s review of AFIDA data — the most recent of which is from 2021 — found the USDA has published errors such as reporting the largest land holding associated with China twice.
“This report confirms one of our worst fears: that not only is the USDA unable to answer the question of who owns what land and where, but that there is no plan by the department to internally reverse this dangerous flaw that affects our supply chain and economy,” Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said. “Food security is national security, and we cannot allow foreign adversaries to influence our food supply while we stick our heads in the sand.”
“I will, in my capacity as a member of the Select Committee on the CCP, Chairman of the Western Caucus, and as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, be working to introduce measures aimed at fixing USDA’s internal reporting and data management to identify to Congress, and the American people, exactly who is investing in the over 40 million acres of U.S. farm land reported to have ties to foreign actors,” he continued.
In recent months, Republican lawmakers and local leaders nationwide have increased scrutiny on land purchases by foreign investors. The increasing number of land purchases has sparked concern that foreign companies and investors, particularly those from China, may be establishing a stranglehold of key U.S. food and energy supplies.
USDA’s most recent data suggests that, as of 2021, foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land grew to approximately 40 million acres. Additionally, Chinese agricultural investment in the U.S. increased tenfold between 2009 and 2016 alone.
The apparent trend led to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., leading a letter to GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro signed by nearly 130 fellow House Republicansin October 2022, requesting a probe into foreign investment in U.S. farmland and its “impact on national security, trade, and food security.”
“Growing foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, particularly by China, poses a direct threat to our food security and national security,” Thompson and Comer said in a joint statement Thursday.
“Safeguarding our farmland and food supply requires a whole of government approach and we will continue to work with the impacted agencies, related committees, and leadership to continue our robust oversight and to identify legislative vehicles to address the findings of the GAO report,” they added.
In February 2023, officials in Grand Forks, North Dakota, rejected a Chinese company’s proposed corn mill that received significant local pushback over concerns about its proximity to a U.S. Air Force base in the area. While the company, Chinese-owned Fufeng Group, was able to purchase 300 acres of land in the area, the local government rejected its building permits, effectively killing the project.
Air Force Assistant Secretary Andrew Hunter said prior to the Grand Forks City Council decision that the project would pose a “significant threat” to national security, but that the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) concluded it did not have jurisdiction in the case. CFIUS is an interagency taskforce overseen by the Department of the Treasury and tasked with reviewing certain foreign investments that may pose a national security threat.
In addition, a subsidiary of Chinese green energy firm Gotion High-Tech purchased 270 acres of land, including some zoned for agricultural use, in Green Charter Township, Michigan, in August. The land is slated to be used to build an electric vehicle battery component factory, but is located within 60 miles of military armories and within 100 miles from Camp Grayling, the largest U.S. National Guard training facility in the country.
Like its determination in the Fufeng Group case, CFIUS ruled in April 2023 that Gotion’s plans in Michigan are not covered transactions.
“The process to report and track foreign-owned agricultural land is complex and is governed by a 46 year-old law that depends on self-reporting by foreign buyers and sellers of U.S. agricultural land,” a USDA spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “To fulfill our obligations under the law, USDA gathers information from the more than 3,000 counties and county equivalents in the United States, each with their own county clerk and recorder’s office — or none at all — feeding information into more than 50 different state systems.”
“The GAO’s recommendations would require changes by Congress, starting with the funding needed to increase staff and modernize our processes, in addition to a change in data collection mandates down to the county level,” they said. “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.”
Meanwhile, the report was coincidentally published just hours after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with Chinese Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian.
“I look forward to further exchanges and cooperation as we continue to forge a relationship that expands and improves market access opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers in China, an important agricultural export market,” Vilsack said.