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US Farmland Increasingly Controlled by Foreign Investment

For years, Joe Maxwell has lobbied for more states to enact laws to monitor foreign investment in farmland. The president and cofounder of Farm Action, an advocacy group trying to counteract what it sees as an agricultural system that prioritizes corporations, he said AFIDA disclosures are unreliable.

“We have no confidence at the federal level that the law is working,” said Maxwell, a Democrat who formerly served as Lieutenant Governor of Missouri.

This USDA graphic shows the proportion of foreign-held agriculture land to all privately held agriculture land. Graphic is on page 10 of the PDF of USDA’s 2020 AFIDA report.

Maxwell said foreign investment, corporate investment, and investment by billionaires concerns him the most. He contends these entities aren’t looking at the production value of farmland. They view it as an investment, he said, which in turn drives up prices for farmers.

“We want everyone to think about, ‘Who do you want to be your farmer?’” Maxwell said. “If you’re happy with Bayer/Monsanto—a German corporation—being your farmer. Or Saudi Arabia. Or China. Then OK. But if you’re not OK with that, then you ought to care about this issue. We ought to make sure the next generation of farmers are individuals who will care for the land for future generations and care about producing safe and healthy food for their neighbors.”

Institutional investors, such as TIAA-CREF, have been increasingly investing in U.S. agricultural land. Many of the largest agricultural companies in the U.S. are foreign-owned. JBS, a Brazilian company, and Smithfield, owned by Chinese company WH Group, are two of the largest meat companies in the U.S. Bayer and BASF, two German companies, and Syngenta, owned by the state-owned Chinese chemical company, are also leading producers of seeds and agrochemicals.

The single largest corporations that control U.S. agricultural land are generally institutional investors of timberland.

According to the USDA’s database, Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, owns at least 17,315 acres across 22 states and Puerto Rico. Syngenta owns at least 3,558 acres across 14 states. But the true figures may be higher. It can be difficult to track the exact number of acres owned by a corporation because of the number of holding companies with different names that many corporations have.

The largest holders of U.S. agriculture land are based in Canada (12.3 million acres), the Netherlands (4.9 million acres), and Italy (2.7 million acres). The single largest corporations that control U.S. agricultural land are generally institutional investors of timberland. Foreign renewable energy companies are also increasing their level of investment.

Foreign investment in agricultural land is split into five categories: forest, pasture, cropland, other ag, and non-ag. The largest category for foreign ownership is forest land. That is particularly true in the state of Maine, where 19.5 percent of agricultural land is controlled by foreign investors. This is largely due to foreign institutional investment in companies that own timberland.

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