Sunday, January 30, 2022

China's Ownership of U.S. Farmland--not much

There was one new Chinese investment in U.S. farmland in 2020, according to the USDA's latest report on foreign farmland holdings--not exactly a "land grab."

The USDA report said 194,179 acres of farmland held by "China" was valued at $1.86 billion at the end of December 2020. These holdings were composed of 266 parcels held by 82 investors. The number of Chinese investors increased from 81 to 82 between 2019 and 2020, and their holdings increased by 3,127 acres. 

Source: USDA, Foreign Holdings of U.S. Farmland
and Farms and Land in Farms.

The China land holdings were 0.5% of the total of 37.6 million acres held by foreigners in 2020. Chinese holdings were 0.02% of the total U.S. farmland area of 896.6 million acres reported in a separate USDA release.

Chinese holdings of U.S. farmland had been stagnant since 2013 until last year's 3,127-acre increase. The leap in Chinese landholdings between 2012 and 2013 reflected the acquisition of Smithfield Foods by the WH Group holding company. A public list obtained by a FOIA request in 2014 revealed that there were 50 Smithfield farms in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Missouri and Utah among the "China" holdings. The concentration of "China" holdings in 2020 in southern states and in "other agriculture" (i.e. pig farms) corresponds to the predominance of Smithfield farms. "China" holdings of cropland totaled only 34,287 acres in 2020.

Based on USDA, Foreign Holdings of U.S. Farmland Through December 31, 2020.

Some warn that inaccuracies in the USDA data hide the true extent of Chinese holdings, but examination of the 2014 list of parcels indicates that the the report may actually overstate "China's" holdings. Back in 2014, over 120 "China" parcels were held by a Hong Kong real estate development company. A number of individual "China" owners had names that use spellings common in Taiwan, as did the officers of a company that owned multiple parcels in the Pacific Northwest. Formosa Plastics--apparently a Taiwan company--has owned a number of parcels since the 1980s. 

The Chinese company WH Group's ownership of 50 Smithfield farms does not threaten the U.S. food system. Last year a fight broke out between the chairman of WH Group and one of his sons who criticized the Smithfield acquisition as a vanity project that distracted the company from its core business and lost money. The son was booted from the company.

China's foreign investment in agriculture is focused mainly on neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, eastern Russia, and Central Asia. Moreover, the pace of China's overseas investment in agriculture, forestry and fishing decelerated in 2020 to 1.1 billion dollars, a third of its peak in 2016, according to China's commerce ministry. Foreign investment in food manufacturing in 2020 was $490 million, investment in textile manufacturing was $690 million, and investment in apparel manufacturing was $340 million. The cumulative stock of overseas investment in ag, forestry and fishing reached $19.4 billion in 2020 (less than 1 percent of the total stock of foreign investment).

Source: data from China Ministry of Commerce. 

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