Weekly Agriculture Newsletter: Politicians look to rein in Chinese farm ownership


Quick Fix
— Lawmakers on the Hill are increasing the call to crack down on foreign investments in U.S. agricultural land, specifically targeting Chinese companies.
— Climate change is being discussed as a growing root cause to immigration due to increasing natural disasters and drought that have devastated the agricultural sector of Central America.
—The American food system is three times more expensive after factoring in the extensive costs to human health and the environment, according to a new report.
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THE AMERICAN FARMS OWNED BY CHINA: Lawmakers are looking to pass legislation that targets China’s ability to purchase agricultural land in the United States, reports our Ryan McCrimmon, amid a larger push from the Biden administration to reduce economic reliance on the economic and national security rival.
By the numbers: Chinese firms have expanded their presence in American agriculture over the last decade by snapping up farmland and purchasing major agribusinesses, like pork processing giant Smithfield Foods. By the start of 2020, Chinese owners controlled about 192,000 agricultural acres in the U.S., worth $1.9 billion, including land used for farming, ranching and forestry, according to the Agriculture Department.
USDA reported in 2018 that China’s agricultural investments in other nations had grown more than tenfold since 2009. The Chinese Communist Party is supporting the foreign agriculture investments in order to gain more control over the country’s food supply chain.
The current restrictions: Some states like Iowa and Minnesota already have their own forms of restrictions on foreign ownership of farmland. Others, like Texas, are far more open to foreign investments.
What about the others? Nationals from European countries and Canada hold vastly more farmland in the U.S., and lawmakers have questioned the appropriateness of giving subsidies to U.S. companies that are subsidiaries of overseas firms, like JBS.
Stay tuned for Hill action: During the recent House Appropriations markup of the Agriculture-FDA spending bill, the committee adopted an amendment to block any new agricultural purchases by companies that are wholly or partly controlled by the Chinese government and bar Chinese-owned farms from tapping federal support programs.
Committee leaders promised to keep working on the language to address concerns from some members about singling out China. Stay tuned to Morning Ag as the bill heads toward the House floor later this month as part of a bigger appropriations package.
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THE CLIMATE CRISIS SOUTH OF THE BORDER: Climate change is pressuring the U.S. immigration system as the Biden administration continues to try to address migration at the Southern border, reports POLITICO’s Sabrina Rodriguez. Climate change is one of the many factors forcing thousands of migrants out of their homes as crops are destroyed and food insecurity and unemployment in agriculture sectors rise.
Worsening crops: A rise in natural disasters, including hurricanes and droughts, around the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is causing a decrease in crop productivity and water shortages. Increased crop failure, flooding, longer droughts and widespread malnutrition and poverty are often cited as reasons migrants want to leave.
“If they stay, they say, they face more devastation from crop loss. They’ll witness their families go hungry. Their only choice, they say: Leave and seek opportunity elsewhere,” Sabrina reports.
What the U.S. can do in the face of climate change: Development experts say the U.S. government can pay for technical assistance to farmers in Central America, who primarily are focused on subsistence agriculture. It can also provide humanitarian aid to tackle immediate needs, like fighting hunger and malnutrition.
Crops like corn, grains, sugar cane and coffee are more vulnerable to climate change so USAID looks at the work here in two parts: first, building resiliency, which means helping farmers diversify their crops and learn techniques that can help withstand some of the weather events; and second, seeking economic development outside of agriculture. More than 30 percent of Guatemala’s employment is in agriculture.
USDA involved: MA readers may remember Vice President Kamala Harris indicated earlier this year that the Agriculture Department would be one agency rolling out policies to help farmers in Mexico and Northern Triangle countries who have been “devastated by crisis in terms of climate and drought.”Advertisement Image
OUR SUPER EXPENSIVE CHEAP FOOD SYSTEM: Critics of the American food system have long argued that our extremely efficient and affordable food supply doesn’t account for all the hidden costs to public health, the environment and vulnerable low-wage workers.
Now they have a new estimate for just how expensive the system may be: $3.2 trillion.
That calculation, released Friday by the Rockefeller Foundation, is about triple the size of the $1.1 trillion food system. The “true cost” accounts for a long list of hidden costs, like diet-related diseases, lost biodiversity and contributions to climate change.
Massive public health costs: The toll on human health is by far the biggest unaccounted cost to the food system, according to the report. At $1.1 trillion, diet related diseases alone double the “true cost” of the food system —“our national ‘bill’ for the diet-related disease is equal to all the money we currently pay for the food itself,” per an executive summary.
Costly to the environment: The unaccounted environmental costs add up to almost $900 billion per year, the report says. These costs are driven mostly by greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity costs.
“This report is a wake-up call,” Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said in a statement. “To fix a problem, we need to first understand its extent.”
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— Chefs in many major cities including Seattle and San Francisco are battling to keep their gas-fired stoves as new regulations press restaurants to switch to electric to reduce emissions. The Wall Street Journal has more.
— Napa boasts some of the country’s most expensive farmland, selling for as much as $1 million per acre, but winemakers don’t have much they can do to adapt their vineyards to more droughts and wildfires, The New York Times writes.
— Consumer interest in plant-based meats rose in 2020, including interest in fake fish, according to CNBC.

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