Who owns the farm? Foreign ownership stats released

James Nason, 12/09/2011

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has conducted its first investigation into levels of foreign ownership of Australian agricultural assets in 27 years, and says the vast majority of rural businesses, land and water remain Australian-owned.

However the survey also reveals that  11 percent of Australia's agricultural land – an area two times the size of Victoria – and 9pc of its rural water entitlements are either partially or fully owned by foreign investors. 

The one-off survey was commissioned by Federal Treasury in December last year in response to rising public concerns that Australia was undermining its future food security by “selling the farm” to off-shore interests.

More than 11,000 farm enterprises were surveyed about the ownership status of their business, land and water assests during May, and the results were released last Friday.

The study concluded that:

  • 99pc of Australia’s 133,600 agricultural businesses were entirely Australian owned;
  • 89pc of the country’s 353 million hectares of agricultural land was entirely Australian owned, and
  • 91pc of its 13,700 gigalitres of water entitlements for agricultural purposes were entirely Australian owned.

However it also higlighted that 45 million hectares, or 11 percent, of Australia’s agricultural land has some level of foreign ownership – an area that area equates to almost twice the size of Victoria.

A total of 1169 gigalitres, or 9pc, of total water entitlements for agricultural use, were either partially or entirely owned by off-shore interests. That equates to about twice the volume of Sydney Harbour of freshwater for agricultural use each year.

The findings have prompted Opposition demands for Australia to take more notice of foreign ownership levels in future and to apply greater controls to the sale of agricultural assets.

Interest from off-shore investors to buy-out of Australian agribusinesses would increase as the world’s population grew to over nine-billion people by 2050.

Shadow minister for agriculture and food security, John Cobb said foreign investment had been vital for the development of agriculture, which was supported by the ABS data.

However he said it was concerning that in the past three years there had been a 10-fold increase in foreign investment in ownership and control of agricultural supply lines.

While the number of agricultural businesses with foreign ownership (1300) represented just 1pc of the total, it was significant that 63pc had greater than 50pc foreign ownership.

“While the overall figures for agribusiness are low they are skewed by not looking at the size of agribusinesses,” Mr Cobb said.

“By including every small family farm business structure with an ABN we cannot see the proportion of large businesses like the grain marketing companies or the dairy food processes that are foreign owned. 

“Foreign control of one of these businesses can have more impact than a owning a thousand farms.

“Other countries are already preparing for tighter food supplies by strategically buying into world-wide agricultural supply chains.

Mr Cobb said current rules for foreign investment were outdated and did not address food security and would not protect agricultural commodities from foreign control.

“At present the Foreign Investment Review Board is required to investigate agricultural investments above the $231 million trigger.

“This would almost never activate a review of land purchases is too high for many agribusinesses.

“Foreign investment has been excellent for agriculture and will continue to be vital. However we need safeguards to ensure our national interest is protected.

The industry group with the highest level of foreign ownership of both agricultural land and water entitlements was the sheep, beef cattle and grain farming group.

The survey was conducted in May across a large sample of 11,000 agricultural businesses.

All states showed high rates of Australian ownership of agricultural businesses, ranging from 99pc in Queensland to 96pc in Tasmania.

The Northern Territory had the greatest proportion of foreign ownership of agricultural land (24pc) and Victoria the lowest (1pc).

The survey showed that 31pc of agricultural water entitlements in WA and 11pc of NSW/ACT’s water entitlements were either partially or fully foreign owned.

Of the water entitlements for agricultural purposes which were more than 50pc foreign owned, NSW/ACT had the largest volume of water entitlements with some degree of foreign ownership (459 gigalitres).

The ABS said the survey results were “broadly comparable” with levels of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses and land last collected in the Agricultural Census of 1983-84. The ABS has not previously collected data on foreign ownership of agricultural water entitlements.

Ownership levels identified by the 1983-84 survey were not released with the 2011 survey last Friday.


Foreign land ownership levels unknown

Farmers call for tighter foreign investment controls



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