Sanders leads GOP governors on letter asking for action on Chinese land ownership

FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

WASHINGTON — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and fellow Republican governors are asking the Biden administration and congressional leaders to address foreign ownership of private American lands, which has been a hot topic among state legislators nationwide.

Sanders led a group of 17 state leaders in a letter Monday calling on the White House to use "all available tools to prevent continued acquisition of American lands by adversarial foreign governments and entities" with a focus on China.

"For too long, we have allowed dangerous and adversarial governments to infiltrate our country. Our States will tolerate such allowances no longer," the governors wrote. "The Biden Administration must reckon with the fact that such entities are plain threats to our national security, our farmers, and our citizenry."

The group addressed the letter to President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and leaders within the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Other governors signing the letter include Ron DeSantis of Florida; Brian Kemp of Georgia; Brad Little of Idaho; Kim Reynolds of Iowa; Greg Gianforte of Montana; Jim Pillen of Nebraska; Doug Burgum of North Dakota; Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma; Henry McMaster of South Carolina; Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Bill Lee of Tennessee; Greg Abbott of Texas; Glenn Youngkin of Virginia; Jim Justice of West Virginia and Mark Gordon of Wyoming.

Jeff Landry also signed the letter in his capacity as governor-elect of Louisiana.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, foreign parties owned 3.1% of all privately held forest and farmland in the United States and 1.8% of all land as of Dec. 31, 2021, or around 40.8 million acres. The agency has reported foreign entities hold 4.9% of all privately-held agricultural land in Arkansas.

[DOCUMENT: Read the USDA's report »

Investors tied to Canada, the Netherlands and Italy owned about half of all foreign-held agricultural and non-agricultural land in the United States as of Dec. 31, 2021.

The pace of foreign agricultural land ownership has changed within the past 15 years. While holdings increased by an annual average of 0.8 million acres from 2009 through 2015, ownership grew by 2.2 million acres annually in the following years.

The crux of the letter involves China's efforts to amass U.S. land. According to the Department of Agriculture, China holds less than 1% of all foreign-held land, but the accumulation has received public scrutiny given China's threat to national security.

Sanders' office did not respond to a question regarding why the letter focuses solely on China's land ownership with consideration to Chinese-affiliated entities owning a small portion of American land.

"Numerous governors and state legislatures have taken action to protect our citizens from the imminent national security threat of the Chinese Communist Party," the governors said. "But national security demands a national response from national leaders. The responsibility is now with you -- follow the lead of our States and prevent CCP amassing of American lands."

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports 15 states, including Arkansas, enacted laws targeting foreign land ownership. During this year's legislative session, Sanders signed legislation banning certain "prohibited foreign-party-controlled" businesses from owning agricultural land in Arkansas.

[DOCUMENT: Read the CRS report »

The foreign parties include citizens and other entities with ties to countries prohibited from defense exports, imports and sales, including China, Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The new state law preceded Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin's October order against Chinese-state-owned company Syngenta Seeds LLC over ownership of 160 acres of farmland in Craighead County. The company was ordered to divest from the land within two years.

Syngenta Seeds had to additionally pay a $280,000 civil penalty for failing to file a report related to this ownership under a separate statute.

"This is not about where anyone is from," the governors added in their letter. "Our states welcome Chinese Americans and anyone else who has escaped foreign oppression for American freedom. This is about where your loyalties lie. We simply cannot trust those who pledge allegiance to a hostile foreign power."

Members of the U.S. Senate and House are considering beefing up the federal government's approach to foreign land investment, including adding the agriculture secretary to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency body responsible for reviewing foreign investments and transactions involving businesses in the country.

"We are heartened to see some in Congress advance legislation which would mitigate this threat. And we encourage Congressional action to codify our stance into federal law," the governors wrote. "Until Congress passes such legislation, we urge the Biden Administration to use all available tools to prevent the continued acquisition of American lands by adversarial foreign governments and entities."

Foreign investors are required to report acquisitions and transfers to the federal Department of Agriculture. Federal lawmakers have not made major changes to the related law — the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act — since its 1978 enactment.

While Congress is requiring the agriculture agency to modernize the reporting system with an online filing portal through language in last year's omnibus spending measure, lawmakers did not allocate funding for this change.