Great Falls Tribune: Tester Sponsors Ban on Ownership of U.S. Farmland by Adversaries

by David Murray

The Chinese spy balloon that drifted across Montana last February focused both national and international attention on Chinese espionage in the United States unlike anything before. However, China has been considered America’s greatest security threat for two decades now, with a long and well documented list of espionage activities including cyber-espionage, intellectual property theft, the theft of U.S. military technology and covert attempts to influence U.S. politics.

One category of Chinese attempts to undermine U.S. security is their expanding purchase of agricultural land and food processing companies. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that China currently owns more than 352,000 acres of agricultural land in the U.S., adding roughly 30% of that total since the beginning of 2019.

Equally concerning is Chinese ownership of U.S. food processing companies. In 2013 a Chinese company bought the largest pork producer and processor in the U.S., Smithfield Foods. Four years later a state-owned Chinese company purchased Syngenta, one of the largest seed companies operating in the U.S.

Concerns over Chinese ownership are twofold. First, that it represents a loss of control of food production in the United States to one of its most determined adversaries, and two that the Chinese are using these properties and business as a base from which to conduct surveillance and other acts of espionage against the U.S.

This past Tuesday, June 25, the U.S. Senate added language to its Defense spending bill to prohibit people or businesses from China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea from buying U.S. agricultural lands and businesses. The amendment was co-sponsored by Senators Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), and both Montana Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

While the amendment extends equally to all four U.S. adversaries, its greatest effect will be on the Chinese. The USDA’s 2022 report on foreign ownership of agricultural land in the United States notes that Iran currently owns 4,324 acres, and Russia just 73. The report shows that North Korea owns no agricultural land in the U.S.

The amendment passed the whole Senate late Tuesday night as a component of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a 91 to 7 vote. On Thursday, Tester spoke with the Montana press to explain the need for the legislation and its importance to national security.

Under the language of the amendment, new scrutiny would be placed on any foreign investment in U.S. agriculture of more than 320 acres or with a value of more than $5 million.

“Food security is national security, that is a fact,” Tester said. “So last year when reports out of North Dakota suggested that China was attempting to purchase farmland near military bases I knew it was time to act. Earlier this week I worked with my Republican colleague, Sen. Rounds of South Dakota to pass our bipartisan amendment to the NDAA to ban foreign adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from purchasing American ag land and agri-businesses.”

“They don’t buy farmland in North Dakota just because they think it’s a good investment,” he  asserted. “It’s absolutely proven that China doesn’t do this stuff by mistake. If you take a look at what happened in North Dakota where they were putting up a processing plant right near a military base, it’s just crazy and we shouldn’t be allowing that.”

In 2022 the Chinese owned Fufeng Group attempted to buy 300 acres land in Grand Forks, North Dakota and just 12-miles from the Grand Forks Air Force base, home to top secret drone technology. The project was shot down by the Grand Forks City Commission following security concerns expressed by the U.S. Air Force.

“Preventing our enemies from acquiring land near our sensitive military sites, like Malmstrom Air Force base in my home state of Montana, is a no brainer,” Tester added in a news release. This is a critical step toward making sure we aren’t handing over valuable American assets to foreign entities who would like to replace us as the world’s leading military and economic power.”

Tester’s message was echoed by Montana Senator Steve Daines, who said in a separate news release that “food security is national security and folks across Montana are rightfully concerned that China and our adversaries are buying up American farmland near critical military operations.”

“In order to protect our national security interests, especially after the Chinese spy balloon floated over Montana’s ICBMs and used American technology against us, we must stop our adversaries in their tracks before they threaten our food security or commit more acts of espionage.”

The farmland security amendment was not the only last-minute amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act directed specifically toward China. A second amendment co-sponsored by Tester is intended to halt the flow of U.S. technology to the Chinese.

“It was recently reported the Chinese spy balloon was using American made technology … a report that raised concerns and questions about our export controls and what commercially available technology China can get their hands on,” Tester said during Thursday’s press conference. “Again, with help of my good friend, Sen. Rounds of South Dakota, we secured another amendment in the NDAA to get a better handle on what American made technology is being used in foreign espionage programs moving forward.”

As Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Tester has a lot of influence over military budgets.

“About an hour ago we just finished our annual defense budget which will include more than $293 million to counter Chinese surveillance with upgraded radars and sensors,” he said on Thursday. “This budget ensures that we maintain our edge on the world stage.”

Asked if he believed the Chinese would seek some type of economic retaliation in response to the amount of focused attention placed upon them in the National Defense Authorization Act, he responded given the ongoing threats from China the U.S. had few other options.

Could they put tariffs on us for that? They could, but the truth is what else are we supposed to do. Are we supposed to allow China to buy farmland? Not under my watch. Are we supposed to not have a good defense bill that protects our country and makes sure we protect our position as an economic and defense leader? We’ve got to do what’s right for this country and if China does implement retaliatory measures, we’ve got to learn to live with it and move on.”

The Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act will now head to conference where lawmakers will attempt to reconcile it with similar legislation now before the Republican controlled U.S. House of Representative. That conference will not take place until after Labor Day, when both Congressional houses return from summer recess.

Ten foreign countries that own the most acres of U.S. Agricultural land.

China’s ownership 352,000 acres of U.S. agricultural land is just a minute percentage of the 40.8 million acres owned by all foreign nationals and businesses, accounting for 3.1% of all privately owned land in the U.S., both agricultural and non-agricultural.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the 109 countries that own agricultural land in the U.S., 10 account for nearly 75% of foreign ownership. Here are the top 10 that own agricultural lands in the United States.

  1. Canada (12,845,000 acres, mostly forestland)
  2. Netherlands (4,875,000)
  3. Italy (2,703,000)
  4. United Kingdom (2,538,000)
  5. Germany (2,269,000)
  6. Portugal (1,483,000)
  7. France (1,316,000)
  8. Denmark (856,000)
  9. Luxembourg (802,000)
  10. Ireland (760,000)

Chinese ownership of 352,000 acres places it 18th on the list. As of the end of 2021, the states with the most foreign-owned agricultural acreage were Texas (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). According to the USDA, foreign interests own 916,000 acres of agricultural land in Montana, including 33,531 acres in Cascade County.

It’s interesting to note that Luxembourg’s 802,000 acres of ag holdings in the U.S. is larger in area than the tiny European nation itself, which is roughly 639,000 acres in size.