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Australia Urged to Protect Key Farmland from Foreign Buyers

  • Phil Mercer

Farmer Ed Fagan inspects the rows of seeds on his property near the western New South Wales town of Cowra (file photo)

Farmer Ed Fagan inspects the rows of seeds on his property near the western New South Wales town of Cowra (file photo)

Australian lawmakers are demanding a review of foreign investment rules to stop foreign mining companies, including those from China, buying up prime farmland. Members of Parliament are worried about food security as a Chinese corporation buys vast tracts of coal-rich agricultural land in the state of New South Wales.

Opposition conservative lawmakers have joined the Greens Party and independent M.P.s to demand that prized agricultural land be protected from foreign ownership.

They say they are concerned about food security and want the Foreign Investment Review Board to have a greater role in protecting key national assets.

The board examines overseas investment plans in Australia worth more than $230 million but lawmakers believe it should lower that bar to include projects valued at $5 million and above.

The Chinese state-owned mining company Shenhua Watermark Coal has purchased large areas of coal-rich farmland in New South Wales, where deposits are reportedly significant enough to sustain a 30-year mining operation. The deal has been approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board but critics believe Australia is wrong to lose control of such important resources. The government in Canberra says it is satisfied with current regulations.

Other agricultural areas in eastern Australia are also attracting the interest of foreign companies eager to exploit reserves of coal seam gas.

Opposition lawmaker Senator Barnaby Joyce says that some parts of the country should be off-limits to foreigners.

“I think prime agricultural land and we have to remember that we're talking about the very best land, should be off limits because prime agricultural land is irreplaceable," Joyce said. "But once prime agricultural land is gone that's it, you can't get it back. God hasn't been here for the last few weeks so once it's gone, it's gone forever.”

Australia is the largest recipient of Chinese overseas foreign investment after Hong Kong. A recent poll by the independent Sydney-based Lowy Institute found that Chinese investors felt discriminated against by Australian officials and the media.

The Lowy Institute also said that 57 percent of Australians thought the government in Canberra was allowing too much investment from China in their country.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and Beijing’s avid demand for natural resources is credited with saving Australia from the worst of the global economic meltdown as well as igniting a once-in-a-century mining boom.

The Greens believe that Australia is not capitalizing enough from the roaring trade in minerals, most notably iron ore.

The party says 83 percent of Australia’s mining industry is foreign-owned and that huge profits go overseas. Other official estimates have said that foreigners own about 50 percent of the industry. But the Green Party warns that if the natural resources wealth is not properly managed, Australia's prosperity will be put at risk.

The mining sector has insisted the Greens’ argument was “flawed” and said the industry had a good record of reinvesting most of its revenue in Australia.