AU: Chinese investment in agricultural land surges as general foreign ownership drops

The area of agricultural land in Australia with a level of foreign ownership has fallen over the past year according to figures from the Australian Tax Office.

The Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land found that there were 50.5 million hectares, or 13.1 per cent of Australia's total agricultural land, with a foreign owner in the financial year ending 2017, down from 52.1 million hectares at the same time in 2016. Some of the reasons listed were due to the acquisition and disposal of agricultural land by foreign investors, and existing land holders changing their status to or from a foreign person.

While a vast majority of the foreign owned agricultural land (more than 85 per cent) is for livestock purposes, horticulture makes up the second smallest category in terms of the type of land use with 296,000 hectares - the only category lower was "other farming".
The country with the largest amount of foreign agricultural land remains the United Kingdom with 2.6 per cent of Australia's entire agricultural land, or 16,445,000 hectares, followed by China with 2.5 per cent and the U.S.A with 0.7 per cent. China had the biggest increase from 1,463,000 hectares in 2015-16 to 14,422,000 hectares in the last financial year, following a strong 12 months of investment. The Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland and Singapore have all increased their interests. 

But the U.K's stake has dropped dramatically from the previous year where it held 27,504,000 hectares. Likewise, the United States fell more than five million hectares. The ATO notes part of this drop could have been due to its investigation into source country ownership.
In terms of the individual states, Western Australia's foreign held agricultural land increased 44.9 per cent, 3,968,000 hectares, primarily due to new registrations of acquisitions of agricultural land that have settled in the past 12 months. But that was offset by decreases in other states including South Australia, where the amount of foreign held agricultural land fell by 33 per cent, Queensland by 10.8 per cent and the Northern Territory by 9.8 per cent.

New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory had the most number of individual properties with foreign interests 1,949, followed by Victoria (1,726) and Queensland (1,356). However, in terms of land size Queensland had the largest total area with 15,748,000 hectares having foreign ownership, and the Northern Territory had the largest percentage with 25.6 per cent of its land held by overseas interests.

Around 80 per cent of foreign held agricultural land is held on a leasehold basis, compared to around 20 per cent freehold. While over 98 per cent is held within Australian incorporated entities.

This year's register is only the second time this data has been available, with last year’s report the inaugural release. It was established to provide greater transparency about the level of foreign ownership of Australia’s agricultural land. 

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