Q: What are your concerns regarding foreign ownership of U.S. food companies and farmland?
A: Food security is national security. If foreign buyers, especially those backed by government regimes, are buying up prime farmland in America as a strategy to dominate food production, there’s obvious concerns about protecting our ability to feed our own people. Let’s start with China. For the past two decades in particular, the Chinese communist government has systematically sought to undermine the United States to become the world’s greatest superpower, using any means necessary, including espionage. From infiltrating American campuses that pose threats to U.S. research to stealing trade secrets from an Iowa corn field, smart public policy and robust enforcement of our laws are crucial to thwart China from cheating its way to the top. More recently, fall-out from the pandemic exposed America’s reliance on China and its grip on supply chains essential to the U.S. economy.
Nearly a decade ago, I called upon the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) and the Department of Justice to scrutinize the Shuanghui International purchase of Smithfield Foods for risk of vertical integration and adverse impact on the independent producer and national security. Since then, I’ve continued my oversight work, pressing the USDA and DOJ to beef up enforcement of antitrust laws to protect the U.S. economy. Last year, I re-introduced a bipartisan bill with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that would give top U.S. agriculture and food officials a permanent seat at the decision-making table so that U.S. food and farm policy is taken into account when control of a U.S. business by a foreign company is at stake. As foreign investors look to gobble up U.S. food and agriculture businesses, the federal government has a responsibility to prioritize American sovereignty. CFIUS is tasked with reviewing proposed mergers and acquisitions of U.S. companies by foreign entities. It currently does not include permanent representation from the USDA or the Department of Health and Human Services. Our bill would bring food security into the conversation, where it belongs. Weighing the merits of proposed mergers must also uphold the integrity and resiliency of the nation’s food supply and the prosperity of Americans who produce the food that feeds us.
Q: What needs to happen to protect U.S. farmland?
A: I’ve had this issue on my radar for more than four decades, and I’m not about to stop now. We have roughly 900 million acres of American farmland in the United States. Iowa has 30.6 million acres in farmland. There’s a finite number of farmable acres on God’s green Earth. As a lifelong family farmer and senior U.S. Senator who champions the interests of America’s Heartland, I’ve got a vested stake to uphold stewardship of our rich, black soil as it passes from one generation to the next. Plenty of food-producing acres are already at risk with suburban sprawl plowing up farmland for housing and economic development. Consider institutional investors – pension funds, endowments and other organizations – are diversifying portfolios with farmland. This is driving up the cost of food production and land prices.
We also need to be concerned about foreign investments, particularly China. At the turn of this century, Chinese owners owned about 192,000 acres of farmland in the U.S., according to the USDA. By 2019, the USDA says foreign ownership of U.S. acres exceeded 35.2 million acres, a 60 percent increase from the decade prior. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I’ve long led the crusade to uphold the integrity of federal farm payments. A few years ago, I raised Cain to prevent foreign-owned Smithfield from feeding at the taxpayer trough with bailout programs intended to mitigate harm caused by China’s trade tariffs. My work for transparency started when I was in the U.S. House of Representatives. I wrote the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act that established a nationwide system to keep tabs on foreign ownership; it directs foreign nationals to report their U.S. agricultural holdings to the USDA. Like my cattle pricing bill and sunshine laws, transparency brings accountability. Iowa has a law that restricts foreign ownership of farmland. There’s growing concern laws on the books are being circumvented with complex business structures to skirt compliance.
The average age of a farmer in Iowa is 58, and roughly four times more farmers are older than age 65 than under age 35. There’s an entire generation of ownership waiting in the wings. If deep-pocketed investors come in, foreign or not, it drives up prices and makes it harder for new and beginning farmers to get started. I’ve worked to enact reasonable reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program so the federal government isn’t distorting the marketplace. When CRP rental acres are higher than cash rent in the county, that drives up the cost of food production and may drive the next generation out. Consider the recent kinks in our food production and distribution system with empty shelves at the grocery store, growing global population and geo-political shenanigans by China and other foreign investors. U.S. public policy needs to be forward thinking about investments in America’s farmland so that potential consequences do not harm U.S. food and national security or unravel the economy and way of life in rural communities across America.