Lawmaker unease over foreign investment in the U.S. agriculture sector has spawned a heap of proposals meant to give agricultural acquisitions additional scrutiny in reviews by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

The committee is an interagency body tasked with screening foreign investments in U.S. companies or property for potential threats to national security, and then making recommendations to the president, who ultimately decides whether the transaction should be cleared or blocked. A growing — and bipartisan — contingent of lawmakers on Capitol Hill want the agriculture secretary to be a permanent part of that panel.

An executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Sept. 15 directs CFIUS to consider supply chain resiliency and U.S. technological leadership risks that would impact both biotechnology and the “agriculture industrial base” when considering which transactions to review. While senior administration officials admitted in a press call that the committee already looks at these types of risks, the order publicly acknowledges the additional considerations.

Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has taken a special interest in CFIUS and has championed one of several pieces of legislation that would offer agriculture a more prominent role on the committee. He said he was “pleased” to see the administration recognize agriculture as a part of national security, though he said he would have liked to see the administration add — or support the addition of — the agriculture secretary as a full-time member. 

“Just adding a new goal to the CFIUS process without some kind of political expertise, I think, makes it more of a soundbite than an actual change in policy,” Lucas said.

At least 17 lawmakers are seeking to add the agriculture secretary to the committee’s ranks permanently. Currently, CFIUS members already have the ability to invite the agency head to help conduct reviews of agricultural transactions. But seven bills have been introduced to include the secretary as a full-time member, including the Agricultural Security Risk Review Act and the Food Security and National Security Act.

“He needs to be a full part of the group, because there are so many issues here that matter,” said Lucas, who sponsored the House version of the Agricultural Security Risk Review Act. “It’s foreign land ownership, it’s who owns the processing capacity in this country, it’s all the inputs that we use to raise our crops. There are so many pieces to this puzzle that impact our ability to feed ourselves and to act as the food reserve for the world.”

Some proposals seek to revise the law governing CFIUS operations by incorporating agriculture into the definition of “critical infrastructure,” which would heighten emphasis on the industry in the committee’s consideration of national security threats.

The Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act, for instance, would include “the sector of agriculture” in this definition. The Foreign Adversary Risk Management Act — or FARM Act, an acronym that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., proudly said took almost as much time to come up with as the bill itself — would instead add “agricultural supply chains” to the definition.

“We’ve got all kinds of foreign influence in the agriculture industry in this country and we’ve got to be more in tune with what’s going on,” Tuberville said. “We kind of run on autopilot.”

And then there’s the Security and Oversight of International Landholdings (SOIL) Act, which would add language that makes agricultural land purchases a “covered transaction” if made by individuals from countries the Director of National Intelligence deems as threats.

CFIUS already has the authority to review agricultural transactions it feels need to be scrutinized and has looked into these types of investments in the past. The committee has received notices for seven covered transactions in the agriculture, construction and mining machinery manufacturing industry over the last six years, as well as one notice related to hog and pig farming, one relating to vegetable and melon farming and two relating to food manufacturing, according to committee reports.

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The committee’s roster currently includes the Departments of the Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, State and Energy as well as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Each of these entities has to sign off on every transaction under review, according to Justin Huff, a lawyer and the former deputy director of the office responsible for chairing CFIUS.

Agencies that don’t have permanent representation on the committee can — and do — help conduct reviews. USDA, for instance, often gets invited as a co-lead for reviews of investments in the agriculture sector and, as a result, must also sign off on the transactions.

“There’s a lot of benefits to that flexibility,” Huff said. “When you’re not a full-time member, you’re only burdened with the particular transactions over which you have appropriate participation requests.”

In addition to giving the agriculture secretary a permanent spot on the committee, the Food Security is National Security Act — introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., along with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Jon Tester, D-Mont. — would make the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration, a full-time member.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican and one of the sponsors of the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security Act, said he believes there’s a “better-than-average” chance Congress could get the agriculture secretary added to the committee, though he said it would be challenging to get any legislation passed over the next year.

“I think there is a broadening bipartisan understanding of the importance of food security as well as, frankly, efforts and attempts by the Chinese to exert more influence over the American food system,” Johnson said. 

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