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U.S. lawmakers push bills to restrict foreign ownership of farmland

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been a couple of months since a Chinese spy balloon flew over the United States, heightening tension between the two countries. Recently, President Biden called the incident silly, but it did put a spotlight on growing efforts by states and Congress to restrict foreign ownership of U.S farmland. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports.

EVA TESFAYE, BYLINE: There are about 20 states that have some sort of restriction on foreign businesses or governments owning agricultural land in the United States. One of the latest controversies over foreign land ownership occurred in North Dakota. Fufeng USA, a subsidiary of a Chinese agricultural company, wanted to build a $700 million corn mill in the city of Grand Forks on 300 acres of land. It would have been near a U.S. Air Force base. There was a lot of community opposition. North Dakota U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer asked the Air Force to weigh in.

KEVIN CRAMER: Just within hours or days of the Air Force letter arriving, China had a spy balloon 65,000 ft above Montana.

TESFAYE: The Air Force said the Fufeng plan would be a national security threat. Shortly afterwards, the city council unanimously voted to shut the corn mill project down. Typically, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States oversees foreign purchases. Cramer, a Republican, co-sponsored two federal bills that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture input into those decisions, saying that the balloon incident was a good reason why.

CRAMER: Knowing, of course, that China has a long and effective history, unfortunately, in theft and - theft of data, theft of intellectual property - this was just a bridge too far.

TESFAYE: According to USDA data, foreign holdings of U.S. farmland increased by an average of about 2 million acres a year from 2015 to 2021. Although experts say there are issues with how the information is collected, the data also shows that China owns less than 1% of the foreign-owned land in the U.S. Canada owns the most - mostly forest land. However, the focus for federal lawmakers who look to prevent foreign ownership of agricultural land is on nations like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. There was also a flurry of bills from state lawmakers this year.

MICAH BROWN: There are so many proposals. It's insane.

TESFAYE: Micah Brown is a staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center. He says, in the past few months, eight states have passed new laws restricting foreign ownership of American land.

BROWN: The lawmakers that are proposing these bills are really saying the reason is national security.

TESFAYE: But some proponents say they are more concerned about food security. That's the case in Missouri, where foreign companies control much of the livestock industry. Here's Missouri State Senator Bill Eigel.

BILL EIGEL: I don't want China to own our ground. I honestly don't want European countries to be able to buy our ground because that's American ground that is feeding our population, and we need to maintain that sovereignty.

TESFAYE: Keeping land in the hands of U.S. farmers is a problem, says Francine Miller. She's a professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School who focuses on farmland access. She thinks there should be more attention on how investors in general are driving up farmland prices and not on Chinese ownership of agricultural land.

FRANCINE MILLER: The focus on this issue obscures the issues that many of us are trying to work on on improving land access for beginning and people-of-color farmers and people who've been denied access to land in America.

TESFAYE: However, the effort to prevent foreign ownership of land isn't going away. The National Agricultural Law Center says the issue has come up time and time again since the country's early days.

For NPR News, I'm Eva Tesfaye in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eva Tesfaye, Harvest Public Media
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