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Australia to track foreign ownership of farm investments

CANBERRA -- Australia will set up a foreign-ownership register for farm lands, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Tuesday, as the government moves to ease public concern over foreign buyers in the agriculture sector, particularly Chinese.

The announcement comes as foreign investors increasingly target Australian agricultural assets to tap booming global demand for food, sparking a political debate and concerns Australia is selling off its future food security.

The latest interest in Australia's agriculture sector came from U.S. agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland, which on Monday proposed to take over Australia's grains handler GrainCorp for US$2.8 billion.

In August, Australia approved Chinese textile group Shandong Ruyi's purchase of Cubbie Station, which covers almost 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) of south-western Queensland, sparking a new debate about levels of Chinese investment into Australian farms.

Another Chinese company, Shanghai Zhongfu Group is bidding for a 58-sq-mile (15,000-hectare) farming project in Kimberley, Western Australia with plans to develop agriculture business.

Gillard told a national farm conference that foreign investment was important for the country's farm sector, which exports around AU$30 billion (US$31 billion) worth of food each year and which is a major global supplier of wheat and beef.

Australia is targeting more food exports to the booming Asian markets, particularly China and India.

“The register will provide the community with a more comprehensive picture of the specific size and locations of foreign agricultural landholdings over and above what is currently available,” Gillard said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said global food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050 to meet demand.

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