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Louisiana House committee approves bill to prohibit land sales to foreign foes

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(The Center Square) – A ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreign adversaries such as North Korea, Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela has been proposed and advanced from a Louisiana legislative committee on Thursday.

The bill was approved by the Committee on Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture, and Rural Development in the House of Representatives.

Next stop will be the Appropriations Committee. The proposal from Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, now has a fiscal note attached. If favored in Appropriations, it could get a vote on the floor of the chamber.

Echols’ bill would ban the sale of agricultural land to residents or agents from five countries and give the state attorney general’s office the ability to take landowners to court if they are tied to an adversary or file an injunction if an agent of one of those nations tries to purchase farmland in the state.

Anyone guilty of violating the proposed law could pay a civil penalty of $50,000 and forfeiture of the land if such entity does not divest the acquired land within a year of a lawsuit being brought.

The fiscal note by the Legislative Financial Office estimates annual costs for taxpayers could range between $546,000 and $620,000.

Cosponsor Rep. John Wyble, R-Franklinton, presented the bill to the committee. He said that the agricultural industry is not only important to the state, but the country as a whole.

“This is really about the economic impact and security around our food production and our ability to continue to do so,” Wyble said. “Every effort and every measure we take should be to protect what is, in terms of economic volume, the largest industry in our state. That touches all of us, no matter where we live.”

A similar bill passed both chambers last session, but was vetoed by then-Gov. John Bel Edwards and a veto override effort fell one short vote.

Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said about 43.4 million acres of farmland in the U.S. is foreign-owned, representing about 21.1% of acreage. He said in Louisiana that number was about 8.3% and that it was primarily Canadians who owned that land, mostly for timber.

“The concern we have and we’ve discussed that and there’s been the federal government trying to figure that out is when foreign ‘bad actors,’ when they’re buying the land,” Strain said. “When they buy land strategically or they buy land near our industrial bases or buy land next to our military bases.”

Two critical military bases are located in Louisiana. Barksdale Air Force Base is home to one of the Air Force’s two B-52 bomber wings, while Fort Johnston (formerly known as Fort Polk) is home to the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center.

Strain said Swedish company Syngenta owns a few hundred acres. It has become problematic since an acquisition by a Chinese company.

Christopher Holton, a senior analyst with the Center for Security Policy, told the committee the bill like many passed in 21 other states such as Arkansas was intended to curtail purchases by foreign adversaries, not all foreign entities.

“It’s not at all unusual that foreign countries would want to own land in the United States because it is the breadbasket of the world,” Holton said. “But it’s different when a foreign adversary wants to own land.”

One example cited by Holton was the purchase of 140,000 acres of land in Texas adjacent to Lackland Air Force Base by an entity owned by a former Chinese Communist Party official and officer in the People’s Liberation Army.

He said that purchase resulted in the Texas Legislature passing a bill to prevent those acquisitions by foreign adversaries.