The area of farmland under partial or full Chinese ownership has dramatically increased over the past year as the level of American and British interests has fallen.
Official figures released on Friday showed that 50.5 million hectares of Australian farmland was foreign owned or part foreign owned at the end of June.
The figure is down from 52.1 million hectares one year earlier but the figures show that Chinese interest in Australian farmland has surged to 14.4 million hectares, up from 1.46 million hectares a year earlier, thanks to some major deals.
One of these was the sale of the outback cattle empire owned by S Kidman and Co to Australian Outback Beef, in which Chinese investors have a 33 per cent interest.
The latest “Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land,” released on Friday, said this transaction alone increased the level of Chinese ownership of Australian farmland by 2.6 million hectares.
In pro-rata terms the portion of directly owned land again saw owners from the United Kingdom (9.8 million hectares) just head off their Chinese counterparts (9.1 million hectares).
The register reveals the large share of foreign ownership in two particular jurisdictions, Northern Territory and Tasmania.
In the Northern Territory 25.6 per cent (or 13.7 million hectares) of agricultural land is foreign owned.
While in Tasmania, where farmland is often highly sought after because of fertile soils and good rainfall, 24.3 per cent (or about 354,000 hectares) of agricultural land is foreign owned. In Tasmania, Chinese interests have invested heavily in dairy, for instance.
Another stand out of the report is the high number of agricultural properties in both New South Wales and Victoria that are foreign owned.
In New South Wales/ACT foreign interests hold 1,949 agricultural properties, covering almost 2.5 million hectares. South of the Murray River, in Victoria, 1,726 agricultural properties are foreign owned, covering 634,000 hectares.
The president of NSW Farmers, Derek Schoen, said the register was “a must” and welcomed its release.
“It’s good to get the figures of who owns what and where they own it, because I think that is vitally important,” he said.
Mr Schoen said the register could “give peace of mind to people in the agricultural industries that we’re not having a wholesale takeover by one particular nation, and that the true figures get published so that people aren’t guessing”.
Nationwide, livestock properties are the number one property owned by foreign interests, at 42.9 million hectares. The second largest farmland category owned by foreign investors is cropping land, at a much lower 1.6 million hectares.
Treasurer Scott Morrison said the latest land register showed that “foreign investors held just 13.6 per cent of all Australian agricultural land as at 30 June 2017, down from an adjusted 14.1 per cent on 30 June 2016. The United Kingdom remains Australia’s largest foreign investor in agricultural land”.
He also said: “Of the 13.6 per cent of agricultural land held by foreign investors, United Kingdom investors own around 27 per cent (or 2.6 per cent of total agricultural land). Chinese investors own around 25 per cent of foreign held land (or 2.5 per cent of total agricultural land).”
American investors own 0.7 per cent of the nation’s agricultural land, or about 2.7 million hectares.
The foreign ownership of farmland figures, released by the Australian Taxation Office, includes farmland held on a leasehold basis. The report said about “80 per cent of foreign held agricultural land is held on a leasehold basis”.
By Darren Gray
Sydney Morning Herald