Foreign land ownership concerning for state’s interests
Published 7:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2023
By Sid Salter
A Mississippi legislative study committee’s report on foreign farmland purchases in the state gained significant state and national attention in recent weeks. The 363-page study report, chaired by Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson, raises legitimate concerns about trends in foreign land acquisition and strategies to protect Mississippi’s interests moving forward.
To be clear, foreign ownership of U.S. land, water, water rights or other ownerships that threaten food availability or security is worthy of study and legislative action. A growing number of states are seeking limits or outright bans of additional foreign-owned farmlands.
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Most have targeted traditional U.S. global political/economic adversaries like China or Russia. Neighboring Arkansas has been seen as a leader in these efforts – unveiling a new law in October that banned certain foreign owners and required a Chinese seed company to divest the company’s land.
Such laws gain almost immediate traction with conservatives and have for decades. About half of U.S. states have some laws restricting foreign land ownership – some on the books over 200 years. The Mississippi report contains copies of emails and letters from private citizens and political groups expressing support for expanding these laws in Mississippi.
But the report also essentially ignores a couple of germane facts. First, foreign ownership of agricultural lands has been a longstanding reality in Mississippi. China’s expansive land grabs in Africa and South America over the last 20 years gained attention over those two decades, but Mississippi has had foreign agricultural landowners for much longer.
The late Queen Elizabeth II was by her investment portfolio the owner of a 38,000-acre cotton plantation in Bolivar County. It was known as Queen’s Farm in Scott. At her passing in 2022, the Queen held a personal fortune estimated at $520 million, mostly real estate-based. The assets of the British monarchy as an institution (mostly held in the Crown Estate) are estimated at $88 billion.
As one might imagine, the monarchy held properties around the globe, including the Bolivar County holding. As of 1968, the Queen through investment in the British textile company Courtaulds owned an interest in the Mississippi cotton plantation that received a reported $1.5 million in U.S. crop subsidies.
The Queen’s interests in Courtaulds later dissolved into the company, and it was sold first to Monsanto and then ultimately to Bayer, a German multinational company.
Second, the Mississippi report ignores the fact that China and the “Chinese Communist Party” referenced in the report was in Fiscal Year 2022 – according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – the primary export market for their U.S. corn, cotton and soybeans.
At $36 billion, China remains America’s largest single agricultural export customer. With one-fifth of the world’s population at 1.4 billion, China buys food and feedstuffs on global markets to offset the nation’s limited arable lands and the dual impacts of pollution and climate change.
Chinese imports of soybeans, corn, rice, wheat and edible oils drive a great deal of the country’s global shopping lists as does an increasing national appetite for meat and poultry – with the widespread availability of meat (particularly for middle-class Chinese citizens) being a relatively recent development.
But economic forecasts of increased ag exports should be good news for Mississippi’s $9.72 billion ag industry. China is the third leading trading partner for Mississippi exports behind Canada and Mexico, with $759 million in value in 2020 – with that number representing a 63.8% increase over the previous year. A study by the Business Roundtable found that international trade supported 325,000 Mississippi jobs.
How Mississippi handles limits or even bans on foreign ownership of agricultural lands in our state should reflect these market influences and not be framed or guided by political xenophobia. In many cases, the people we fear owning the land across the fence are already our state’s substantial trading partners.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.