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Foreign Investment in U.S. Agricultural Land Is Raising National Security Concerns

Posted on January 23, 2024

The U.S. is known as the breadbasket of the world. Beyond our amber waves of grain, America is a top producer of corn, soybeans, grapes, cattle and dairy, and much more.

Agricultural land is a valuable asset here, and an attractive one for foreign investors. In fact, foreign investment in agriculture has grown substantially—to as much as 43.4 million acres in 2022. But these investments may have consequences for U.S. national security.

Today’s WatchBlog post looks at our new report on foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land and its potential risks.

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photo showing a farm with barns and silos

 

How has foreign investment in agriculture changed?

Foreign ownership and investment in U.S. agricultural land—which includes farmland, pastures, and forest land—has grown almost 50% since 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The increase is mostly due to foreign-owned wind companies obtaining long-term leases to build wind turbines on farmland and pastures. Foreign investments include purchases by foreign companies, countries, individuals, and U.S.-based companies with foreign ownership.

But, while there has been this significant increase, USDA and national defense agencies may not have all the information they need to know about which countries are investing and where.

How does the U.S. government look for potential national security concerns related to foreign investment?

Some foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land may raise national security concerns—especially when they are located near sensitive military locations. For example, a subsidiary of a Chinese company purchased cropland near Grand Forks Air Force Base in 2022. But the U.S. government may have a hard time tracking these transactions. This is because the records for these transactions, such as land deeds, are usually kept at county tax and recorder offices across the country and are not maintained in a single database.

With that said, foreign investors in U.S. agricultural land are required to submit forms describing their transactions to USDA. This is required by the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA). But AFIDA was not designed as a national security program, and AFIDA forms are focused on data collection rather than identifying potential national security concerns.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is a federal government, interagency committee that reviews certain foreign transactions to determine potential effects on U.S. national security. CFIUS agencies—such as the Departments of Defense and Treasury—identify and review transactions including some agricultural land transactions that are located near sensitive military locations. But USDA does not share complete and timely data with CFIUS agencies, which these agencies need to identify and review potential national security concerns. This is because of challenges in how USDA collects this information.

U.S. Government Oversight of Foreign Investment in U.S. Agricultural Land

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Graphic showing how agricultural land transactions are monitored by the AFIDA and CFIUS

Better information on investments is needed to protect U.S. interests

One of the major challenges USDA faces in sharing data involves how it is collected. USDA receives thousands of paper forms detailing foreign transactions every year. USDA employees then manually compile data from these forms in a slow and error-prone process. This process includes information about the filer. But it does not include additional investors, such as parent companies and significant shareholders. As a result, the total interest held by certain countries, such as China representing 1% of foreign investments, may be understated.

Recently, Congress directed USDA to create an online submission process and database for AFIDA by the end of 2025. But USDA does not currently have plans and timelines to do so, in part because it has not received funding to create the database.

As USDA prepares to move from paper to online submissions, it has an opportunity to improve its processes for collecting and sharing AFIDA data. We made six recommendations to help USDA in these efforts—including that USDA share detailed and timely AFIDA data with CFIUS agencies, improve the reliability of AFIDA data, and assess its ability to adopt an online submission system and public database.

Learn more about the oversight of foreign investment in U.S. agricultural land by checking out our new report.


  • GAO’s fact-based, nonpartisan information helps Congress and federal agencies improve government. The WatchBlog lets us contextualize GAO’s work a little more for the public. Check out more of our posts at GAO.gov/blog.