The rise in Chinese ownership of American farmland has become a contentious issue as lawmakers at both the state and federal levels intensify their efforts to counter perceived threats from China.
In recent months, more than two dozen states have passed or considered legislation to restrict Chinese purchases of U.S. farmland. Former President Trump has also pledged that if he regains the presidency, he will ban Chinese investors from acquiring American farmland and critical infrastructure while mandating the sale of their existing holdings.
Trump stated in a campaign video in January, "China has been spending trillions of dollars to take over the crown jewels of the United States's economy. To protect our country, we need to enact aggressive new restrictions on Chinese ownership of any vital infrastructure in the United States, including energy, technology, telecommunications, farmland, natural resources, medical supplies, and other strategic national assets."
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed multiple bills this month prohibiting Chinese citizens from purchasing land in the state. The North Carolina House passed a bill last month banning the governments of "foreign adversaries" from acquiring agricultural land and land within 25 miles of a military installation. In addition, the Texas Senate passed a bill last month banning Chinese citizens from buying property with certain exceptions.
Federal lawmakers are also pushing for legislation to block Chinese acquisition of farmland. A bipartisan group of senators introduced the PASS Act, which would prohibit nationals of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea from buying U.S. agricultural land or investing in American agricultural businesses.
Some legislation specifically focuses on the Chinese government. The House passed an amendment to the Republican energy bill in March, preventing the Chinese Communist Party from purchasing U.S. farmland or land used for renewable energy. However, the broader bill faced opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate and did not progress.
Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland has increased significantly over the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), rising fivefold from 69,000 acres in 2011 to nearly 384,000 acres in 2021. This represents approximately 1 percent of the 3 percent of all U.S. farmland owned by foreign nationals.
The rate of increase has not been consistent. The majority of the surge came from a single purchase in 2013 when the Chinese company, WH Group acquired Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U.S. Chinese-owned farmland remained relatively stagnant until 2019 when it increased by over 136,000 acres. However, most of this increase resulted from acquisitions made by U.S. companies with Chinese shareholders.
The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has made China a focal point, establishing a select committee on "strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party." Representative Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), a member of the committee, has repeatedly introduced legislation to prohibit the Chinese government from buying U.S. agricultural land, emphasizing the importance of food security as a national security issue.
Former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who testified at a committee hearing, expressed concern over this issue, highlighting China's concerted effort to make U.S. agriculture dependent on the Chinese market. He described their strategy as involving co-option, coercion, and concealment.
However, a 2021 analysis by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded that foreign purchases of U.S. agricultural land do not pose a significant threat to U.S. food security. The analysts noted that the United States currently produces an abundance of food per capita, and food insecurity among American families is primarily driven by poverty rather than a lack of food.
While Chinese land purchases near military infrastructure have raised concerns, critics of efforts to limit Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland argue that such measures could contribute to anti-Asian sentiments. They stress the importance of discussing the challenges posed by China in a nuanced manner, considering the extensive trade between the two countries to avoid escalating tensions and potential repercussions for both food security and international relations.