October 1, 2023

Owning Our Food

By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 11, 2023

Let’s just assume the Chinese have surveillance technology other than slow-moving and visible-to-the-naked-eye balloons. They certainly knew it would be seen and taken down. To be sure, they have multiple sophisticated satellites busily surveilling any and all of our important military sites exactly as we have over China.

The apoplectic reactions of some commentators was more than a little overblown. The talking heads on Fox & Friends were particularly alarmed and with an entirely new angle. Host Rachel Campos-Duffy suggested the Chinese were checking out farmland and hinted they were in the market for existing farms so they could control our food supply. She even suggested anyone who sells farmland to the Chinese might be guilty of treason. The North Dakota legislature has even considered a law prohibiting Chinese citizens or interests from buying land in their state.

There might be an issue with our farmland, but it doesn’t involve Chinese ownership. In fact, we import $3.8 billion worth of agricultural products from China, our seventh largest foreign food supplier. They don’t really need to buy our farms to interrupt our food supply, but let’s take a look to make sure. We’ll get to the real issue a bit later.

First, let’s make sure the Chinese aren’t buying up our farms. There are 895.3 million acres of farmland and timberland in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 35 million acres of that is owned by foreign individuals, companies, or investors. Chinese interests own a paltry 192,000 acres and don’t even make the top 10 of foreign agricultural investors, a list headed by Canada.

Getting back to Montana about which the Fox folks were so concerned, Montana State University graduate students have done the investigating for us. Montana is a huge state, the fourth largest by area, and it has a whopping 59.7 million acres of farmland. Foreign interests only own a bit more than 700,000 acres or about 1.2 percent of that total. Belgium and Canada have the largest foreign holdings, but China is way down the list.

Just to be safe, we should check foreign ownership here in Michigan. According to the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan has about 10 million acres of farm and forest land on 47,600 farms and timber operations. We have an unusually large foreign presence, with more than 1.3 million acres controlled or owned by foreign interests, but the vast majority of that is timberland. Our biggest foreign investors and land owners are from the Netherlands and Canada, who together control about 58 percent of all foreign-owned farms and timber. The Chinese are not significant players here, either.

(Those pesky Canadians are everywhere, though. They’re in Michigan, Montana, and nationwide. Fox & Friends should be very upset with them.)

In short, China is not a significant player in our domestic agricultural businesses and poses no threat to our domestic food supply, nor is there any evidence they are attempting to buy up farms for nefarious purposes.

There is a different kind of land issue in western states, including Montana. It doesn’t involve Chinese land ownership but does pose a threat. Rural Arizona, which prides itself on its aversion to government regulations, is ground zero. Like in so much of the West and Southwest, the issue is water and who uses how much of it. Outside of the counties in which Phoenix and Tucson sit, Arizona water regulations are rare.

The combination of cheap land and a water use free-for-all has resulted in a potential water crisis for residents in rural communities like Kingman, who rely on wells with rapidly receding water levels. The suspected culprits are new agricultural operations.

The Saudis, not the Chinese, have purchased thousands of acres on which they grow extremely thirsty alfalfa, which they then ship back home for their horses. Not to be outdone, investment groups have planted thousands of acres of equally thirsty pistachio trees, which will require more and more water as they mature.

The water usage issues in Arizona are reflective of a much bigger threat to our food supply than foreign interests and their relatively tiny holdings. Not enough water in areas like California’s Central Valley—which is responsible for half the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts—combined with too much water in some areas of the Midwest, the breadbasket of the country, makes for a dangerous recipe.

Neither Chinese balloons nor their paltry American farmland ownership are threats to our food supply. Other foreign interests involved in our agriculture industry aren’t much of a problem, either. Water is the issue; who uses how much and for what in the West where we seem determined to suck the aquifers dry...and how to deal with increasing flood threats that turn our “amber waves of grain” in the Midwest into mud we can’t farm.


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