In North Carolina, upwards of 700,000 acres, or 3.5% of agricultural land, is foreign held, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
This is in parallel with the national trend of US foreign holdings of agricultural land. In 2022, US foreign holdings of agricultural land grew by more than 8%, according to a report by Reuters.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in January released its report to Congress concerning the foreign investments in US agricultural land and the systems used to collect, track, and share this information. In 2021, US foreign holdings of agricultural land grew to approximately 40 million acres nationwide, a 40% increase since 2016, according to the GAO report.
According to the report, GAO found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not share updated and timely data on foreign investments in US agricultural land as collected under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 as amended (AFIDA). The Committee on Foreign Investments In the United States (CFIUS) agencies, which include the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Defense (DOD), identify and review transactions that could pose risks to national security, such as the proximity of foreign-held land to a military installment.
The annual publication of selected AFIDA information is available to CFIUS agencies to assess national security risks. However, the DOD indicated in the GAO report that the AFIDA information they use needs to be more specific, more updated, and updated more frequently than on an annual basis.
“Sharing current data could help increase visibility into potential national security risks related to foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land,” according to the GAO report.
Foreign holdings of US land can pose national security risks, particularly when such holdings are near a military site, the DOD said. The GAO report found errors with the AFIDA data through calendar year 2021, such as the People’s Republic of China, the largest land holder, being counted twice according to the report. In 2022, members of Congress expressed concerns about Chinese-owned cropland near Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota, particularly given sensitive drone technology in use at the base.
Agricultural land is not the only land in NC owned by foreign entities. The site of a potential future ICF in Greensboro is tied to a previously publicly traded Chinese company.
“We certainly don’t want to lose control of our ag lands that are so vital to feeding us, and we want to be sure our military bases are protected,” Steve Troxler, North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, told Carolina Journal in an email. “Not only are we concerned about foreign-owned land, but we are very concerned about the development of ag land in North Carolina that is happening at a rapid rate.”
Under AFIDA, foreign individuals who acquire or transfer agricultural land are required to report the transaction to the USDA. The problem arises, however, with the enforcement of this law. During a March 2023 congressional hearing, Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture, reported that the USDA is reliant on foreign individuals to self-report AFIDA information, according to the GAO report.
Despite the amount of foreign-owned agriculture land in the state, NC is one of only seven states that has seen a downward trend in foreign held land, according to the USDA report.
Last fall state lawmakers filed HB 463, the NC Farmland and Military Protection Act. The primary sponsors of the bill are House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, House Rules Chairman Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, and Rep. Jennifer Balkcom, R-Henderson. While North Carolina law permits a certain level of foreign investment in land within the state, this bill “[…]would prevent certain foreign governments from acquiring certain North Carolina real property,” according to the National Agricultural Law Center. After passing unanimously in the House, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations on April 27th of 2023 and is again eligible for consideration in the Senate during the upcoming legislative session.
“Everyday we are learning how vulnerable we have become with foreign adversaries purchasing agricultural land, not just in North Carolina but across the country,” Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, told the Carolina Journal.
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