Earlier this year, state and federal lawmakers began a push to regulate foreign ownership of U.S. real estate over fears that Chinese entities were creating a national security risk by acquiring large swaths of American farmland. Some of it was even near sensitive sites.
While it was reported that fewer than 1,400 acres of the country’s 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land – less than three-hundredths of 1 percent – was actually owned by Chinese interests, on Tuesday, officials in Arkansas took steps to force a Chinese state-owned company to divest itself of 160 acres of Craighead County farmland.
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders ordered Syngenta, which is actually headquartered in Switzerland but was acquired in 2017 by China National Chemical Corporation, to relinquish its land holdings in northeastern Arkansas. In addition, the agricultural firm, which primarily trades in pesticides and seeds, was ordered to pay a $280,000 fine for failing to file timely disclosures to the state.
Chinese ownership of farmland has increasingly become a bipartisan issue.
A Clear and Present Danger?
The Bear State is now the first in the country to take such drastic action – but cited national security concerns.
“The land in question is owned by Northrup King Seed Co., a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds LLC, which is ultimately owned by China National Chemical Co. (ChemChina), a state-owned enterprise,” Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin told reporters on Tuesday.
Griffin added that ChemChina is also on the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) list of Chinese military firms that now pose a clear threat to national security as well as to local farmers.
“The idea that the Chinese government would care about non-military assets is exactly what they’ve demonstrated over the last few decades,” the attorney general continued.
Syngenta Seeds has claimed that the State of Arkansas is overreacting.
“The order for Syngenta to divest itself of 160 acres of agricultural land in Craighead County, which the company has owned since 1988, is a shortsighted action that fails to account for the effects of such an action, intended or not, on the U.S. agricultural market,” the company said in a statement. “Our people in Arkansas are Americans led by Americans who care deeply about serving Arkansas farmers. This action hurts Arkansas farmers more than anyone else.”
The company added that it continues to “benefit American farmers, strengthens American agriculture, and makes the U.S. a more innovative and competitive participant in the global agricultural marketplace.”
Federal Oversight Has Been Lax
Even as the number of acres acquired by China is just a fraction of the total agricultural land in the United States, it has become a hot-button issue in recent months. Lawmakers have warned that the federal oversight system for the reporting of foreign ownership of the land is lax and rarely has been enforced.
However, U.S. law still requires that any foreign individual or entity that buys or leases U.S. agricultural land is required by federal law to report the transaction to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) within 90 days, yet some were not reported for years.
According to an NBC News report from August, one company didn’t report its ownership for more than 20 years, and in that same period, there have been no fines greater than $121,000 for failure to file such a report.
The vast majority of transactions involving U.S. land came from European wind power companies leasing land from U.S. farmers.
There has also been a growing concern over China’s influence on the U.S. economy, notably in the farming industry. At a round table of bipartisan lawmakers from Congress held in August in Iowa, farmers accused Beijing of stealing samples of genetically enhanced seeds – in some cases straight from the field, Newsweek reported.
The delegation cited a 2012 case in which a farmer in Iowa said a Chinese man was digging up hybrid seeds, which were sent back to China. Mo Hailong was later arrested by the FBI for stealing U.S. agricultural trade secrets. He was convicted of several crimes, including conspiracy, in 2016.
The FBI has estimated that Chinese intellectual property theft costs the U.S. economy upwards of $600 billion a year.
“Seeds are technology,” Sanders said at a press conference. “Chinese state-owned corporations filter that technology back to their homeland, stealing American research and telling our enemies how to target American farms. That is a clear threat to our national security.”
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.