A special committee on China created in the Republican-controlled House will spend part of its time investigating Chinese investments in U.S. agriculture and the risk they could pose for food security.
Along with China’s military threat, its agriculture strategy will be “one of the key issues that the committee will be looking at,” said Select Committee on China member Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican who has spearheaded efforts in the House to tighten regulations for foreign purchases of U.S. farmland.
Newhouse says the committee’s chairman, Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are both interested in having hearings that focus on agricultural land issues.
The China panel, which is formally known as the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, will have 13 Republicans, including Newhouse, a former state ag director, and South Dakota’s Dusty Johnson, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Other China committee members include Rep. Ashley Hinson, who represents a heavily agricultural district in northeast Iowa. Both Hinson and Newhouse are members of the House Appropriations Committee.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York on Wednesday named the 11 minority members of the committee, including House Ag member Shontel Brown of Ohio. Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi will be the committee's ranking Democrat.
The China committee is required to produce a report by the end of the year and won’t have any authority to move legislation. A source familiar with Gallagher's plans said he will rely on panel members to work with their home committees to address issues that need legislative solutions.
Hearings are expected to begin in late February or early March.
One possible location for a hearing would be North Dakota, where a Chinese company purchased land near Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Chinese holdings currently account for less than 1% of foreign-owned U.S. farmland, but concerns are growing in Congress nevertheless. The fiscal 2023 spending package includes legislation requiring USDA to set up an interactive public database for foreign ownership disclosures.
Foreign investors’ interest in U.S. land continues to increase. The number of foreign land acquisitions reported to USDA jumped from just 911 parcels involving 186 investors in 2012 to 6,363 parcels purchased by a total of 323 investors in 2021.
A 2022 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent advisory agency, warned that China could gain further leverage over U.S. supply chains by purchasing agribusinesses and land in the United States. China also could reduce U.S. competitiveness by stealing intellectual property and even creating bioweapons using DNA from genetically modified American crops, the report said.
While Chinese holdings are still relatively small, Newhouse said it’s important for lawmakers to dig into the issue before “it gets to the point where it's gone beyond our control. The thing that I point to is the trend over the last decade has truly been a steep one.”
Newhouse stressed that the select committee’s goal is not to isolate China, which he acknowledged is a critical market for U.S. soybeans and other agricultural commodities.
“We just want to make sure that there is a fair and level playing field between our two countries,” he said. “If you as an American wanted to purchase land in communist China, what do you think are your chances of doing this? This is just making sure that that playing field is level.”
Johnson said he’s concerned not just about Chinese investment in U.S. farmland and ag processing but also about Chinese investments in Africa and Asia, and the global influence that could potentially give China over food supplies.
“Food security is national security, and I think we have all seen that Russia was able to extract more influence over Europe because of the Russian control of energy,” Johnson said.
Some House Democrats are wary of the select committee’s aims. More than 20 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus signed a statement saying in part they were "deeply concerned about the direction of this Select Committee and we urge the Chair-Designate and our Leadership to ensure that strong Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and pro-diplomacy voices are clearly reflected in the membership when it is constituted.”
Still, Jeffries said Democrats would "work in a serious, sober and strategic manner to evaluate our relationship with the Chinese government and to address the rise of authoritarianism globally,”
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A senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, is among the lawmakers trying to increase scrutiny of Chinese agricultural investments.
She is co-sponsoring legislation, the Foreign Adversary Risk Management (FARM) Act, that would add USDA to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the body that reviews foreign acquisitions of U.S. companies. The bill was previously introduced in the last Congress.
“In the face of significant foreign investment in American farmland, we need to recognize how foreign actors could pose potential threats to our economic strength, the competitiveness of our ag industry, and our national security,” Spanberger said in a statement.
Iowa GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, who helped pass the existing foreign farmland reporting requirements in the 1970s, will be reintroducing similar CFIUS legislation in the Senate. A second bill he's pushing would bar the Farm Credit entities from lending money for foreign purchases of U.S. farmland.
"I expect you're going to find other members of Congress hearing similar concerns that I am from Iowans, and I'm eager to get to work ... to make sure we keep track of that foreign ownership," he told reporters Tuesday.
He said farmers shouldn't be concerned about Chinese retaliation on U.S. ag exports. As a "country of 1.4 billion people and not much arable farmland, they're going to have to be importing food, and the United States is going to be a major supplier for them," he said.
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