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Local View: Safeguarding U.S. farmland
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Local View: Safeguarding U.S. farmland

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Take a look at a question I raised last week in the Appropriations Committee, where I serve as ranking member on agriculture. I was speaking in support of an amendment to the ag appropriations bill that would block Communist China and its surrogates from purchasing U.S. farmland and would make farmland already owned by China ineligible for U.S. farm subsidies. I’m pleased this commonsense bipartisan amendment passed out of committee.

Roughly 30 million acres of American farmland are currently owned by foreign investors. While that’s only 2.2.% of U.S. farmland, that number doubled in the last two decades. Admittedly, Chinese-ownership is only a small part, roughly 200,000 acres of U.S. farmland, valued at $2 billion. This might not sound like a lot until you realize there’s been a ten-fold expansion of Chinese ownership of American farmland in just the last decade.

Here’s a related issue: in 2013, China-based WH Group purchased Smithfield Foods, one of the big four meat processors that control over 80% of meatpacking in America.

Let’s “unpack” that a bit. Ag is one of the huge export winners for America. So, China buys our export machine. American corporations play the same global game, but American and Chinese systems are not calibrated the same.

Here’s why this is all a bit ominous. China's mercantilist foreign policy is centered around resource extraction, predatory lending and buying off foreign regimes. We can foresee the fate of democracy in Hong Kong and what China intends for Taiwan.

In the recent commemoration of the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, China’s “President-for-Life,” Xi Jinping, intoned that China’s rise to global dominance is an "historical inevitability" and that China will no longer be "bullied, oppressed, or subjugated" by foreign nations. "Anyone who dares to try,” President Xi said to a fawning, choreographed Tiananmen Square crowd, “will find their heads bashed bloody against a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

President Xi wants to project himself to the world as learned, wise, gentle, a protector of Chinese ideals and culture. We desire to respect Chinese ideals and culture, especially the Chinese narrative around foreign occupation, and hope for better relations. But China is playing a double game in using our free and open society.

Currently, there are no federal restrictions on the amount of land that can be foreign owned. It’s been left up to states to set those boundaries. Six states -- Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma -- currently prohibit further foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. When it comes to an issue that so directly affects national security, the supply chain, rural America, its values, its communities, its family-run farms, a piecemeal approach begs a broader national response.

With two-thirds of American family farms likely to change hands over the next few decades, some of that land may end up in foreign hands in perpetuity, with no chance of return to American ones. When land is foreign owned, the profits do not fully flow back into rural communities, further eroding rural life.

As the pandemic showed, our nation had become inordinately dependent for medicines and personal protective equipment from the very part of China from which the virus originated. As we look to insource more of our manufacturing and drug production, we also need to examine the de facto exporting of our land.

We can continue our handwringing over China’s advance, send more ships to the South China Sea and continue to sate the infectious lust of globalized corporate interests by slavishly adhering to free trade without guardrails. Or we can protect our rural communities and national security by being smart, ensuring more of our stuff is Made in America and ensuring that ownership of our land does not become another unfair proposition for America.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry represents Nebraska's 1st Congressional District and is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture; Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration; and member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

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