The U.S. process for tracking how much land is owned by China and other foreign entities is riddled with data flaws, a major government watchdog said Thursday, concluding the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot report reliable information "about where and how much U.S. agricultural land is held by foreign persons."
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report found errors and insufficient information related to the current system for tracking foreign investments of U.S. farmland following a comprehensive review at the request of lawmakers.
Among other errors, the largest land holding associated with China was counted twice, potentially overstating the amount of U.S. land the country owns. GAO outlined six recommendations for USDA to better collect, track and report data.
Despite being relatively small, Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland has emerged as a flash point in ongoing tensions between the two countries, and a flurry of states last year moved to pass laws restricting land access. Part of the reasoning behind this was mistrust around the USDA’s reporting processes and structure.
In the 62-page report, GAO found USDA’s processes were unclear or challenging to implement based on the handbook guidelines, as well as errors in the reporting. Currently, the agency compiles its farmland investment data annually using paper forms filed at headquarters and county offices. The completed reports are then published online and shared with the Department of Defense and Department of the Treasury to review for potential risks once per year.
A solution to the problem would be to upgrade the agency’s reporting technology and systems, however, budget concerns have stifled progress. Congress at one point required USDA to create an online submission process for foreign investment data by 2025. GAO said there are currently no plans or timeline to do so "in part because USDA has not received funding."
The report galvanized Republicans' calls to restrict landholdings owned by foreign adversaries like China. Agriculture House Committee Reps. Glenn “GT” Thompson and James Comer said in a joint statement following the report that the U.S. should do more to restrict foreign adversaries from owning land, noting they “pose a direct threat to our food security and national security."
“Safeguarding our farmland and food supply requires a whole of government approach and we will continue to work with the impacted agencies, related committees, and leadership to continue our robust oversight and to identify legislative vehicles to address the findings of the GAO report,” they added.
Under USDA’s current reporting system, foreign investors from China hold 346,915 acres, or less than 1% of total holdings.