While we look to the skies for alien flotsam hovering about, maybe Americans should be more grounded. Foreign persons and entities hold growing interests in U.S. lands.
Foreigners slowly have been buying up both agricultural and nonagricultural properties across the U.S., including in Illinois. So much so that two farm-state senators are becoming alarmed.
Foreign entities now hold 40.8 million acres of American land, about 3.1%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foreign-owned agricultural acreage has nearly doubled in the past decade.
That national percentage doesn’t sound like a lot of land, but it’s enough for U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., to sponsor a bill calling for more scrutiny of foreign investments in the country, especially in the Midwest.
The pair say the Farmland Security Act will ensure we can address the impact foreign investments — especially those backed by unfriendly governments — have on national security, family farms, rural communities and the domestic food supply.
In Illinois, foreign investors control 2.6% of agricultural land, between 250,000 and 500,000 acres, which is a small number compared to other states. A tiny portion of that acreage is in Lake County, including the Gurnee site of Roquette, the French-headquartered global nutrition manufacturer.
It’s not the French that U.S. officials are worried about. It’s the People’s Republic of China.
With China buying up prime farm properties, mainly in the Midwest and Great Plains, national security concerns are being raised about espionage and the nation’s food chain. China, too, is the culprit behind the floating “weather” balloon which a U.S. fighter jet shot down off the South Carolina coast after traversing the U.S., including over locations close to sensitive military installations.
In 2013, the Chinese company Shuanghui purchased Smithfield Foods, a top U.S. pork producer headquartered in Virginia, for $4.7 billion. Along with the company’s meat processing plants came 146,000 acres of farmland across the U.S. worth an estimated $500 million, according to USDA data.
Another Chinese company recently bought 300 acres of North Dakota farmland near the Canadian border, and also quite close to a U.S. Air Force base. The firm’s U.S. subsidiary wants to build a $700 million corn milling plant, according to multiple reports.
Chinese firms, which are believed to own more than 200,000 acres of land across the U.S., are not the only concern. In 2020, exports of U.S. chicken products from Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., owned by a Brazilian corporation, jumped 24%, officials said, disrupting the American domestic food supply in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a Congressional Research Service report late last month, in 2021 forestlands accounted for 47% of all foreign-owned land; cropland accounted for 29%; and pasture and other agricultural land, 22%. The USDA says foreign land holdings increased by an average of 2.2 million acres per year since 2015.
More than 62% of all foreign-owned agricultural land in the U.S. was owned by five countries, data shows. The most, 29%, is owned by Canadian concerns, followed by the Netherlands with 14%, Italy 7% and the United Kingdom and Germany, with 6% each.
As of year-end 2021, according to the USDA, the states with the most foreign-owned agricultural acreage were Texas with 5.3 million acres; Maine, 3.6 million acres; Colorado, 1.9 million acres; Alabama, 1.8 million acres; and Oklahoma, 1.7 million acres.
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The Agriculture Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, which dates back to 1978, requires the USDA to log foreign purchases of land, but the two senators maintain the data that has been collected is incomplete and inaccurate. Enter the Grassley-Baldwin measure, which they say will give more public access to who owns farmland across the country.
Illinois has a similar law, the Illinois Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act. It requires a foreign person or corporation that buys land in Illinois to report the purchase to the state Ag Department within 90 days or pay a fine.
Under the Grassley-Baldwin bill, the USDA will be mandated to publish all prior year disclosures of foreign investments in agricultural land in the United States on an interactive public database and have real-time updates as disclosures are filed. There are no restrictions on the amount of private U.S. agricultural land that can be held by foreign interests, although a few states ban practice.
We sometimes ignore Illinois as a major agricultural state, known for its corn and soybean crops. The state’s two senators, Democrats Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, need to get behind the bipartisan Farmland Security Act before crops harvested in the USA find their way to foreign storehouses or silos.
Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.