The Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act (AFIDA) requires the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to collect data on foreign investor ownership of American agricultural land. However, data collection has long been crippled by poor management and compliance. Decades of neglect of the AFIDA program have prevented Congress and the general public from understanding the increase in foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land over the past four decades.
A review of the available data reveals several accessibility problems that make it difficult for interested parties to analyze foreign ownership of agricultural land. Until recently, the majority of USDA’s AFIDA reports were not available online, requiring a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get access. The reports are poorly formatted, requiring manual data retrieval. Finally, the data fields are not standardized and lack transparency on transaction prices. These flaws prevent Americans from easily understanding what foreign entities are purchasing U.S. farmland.
An analysis of the publicly available AFIDA datasets reveals trends in U.S. agriculture that policymakers should consider amid ongoing national security debates. The share of American farmland under foreign ownership has risen from 1.2 percent in 2004 to 2.9 percent in 2020. Chinese investment in particular has increased dramatically: in 2010, Chinese investors owned $81 million dollars in American agricultural land ($96 million in 2020 dollars); in 2020, they owned $1.8 billion, representing a 2,220 percent increase. National security leaders have raised concerns about specific foreign purchases of American agricultural land. In 2022, lawmakers have proposed reforming the AFIDA program, including through the appropriations process, to improve transparency about foreign agricultural purchases.
As Congress considers strengthening AFIDA, lawmakers and the Biden administration should take steps to improve transparency of foreign investment in U.S. agriculture. Improving the access and management of this data would give Congress and the public the ability to understand how foreign investors are purchasing American agricultural land.