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Aus backs land register as foreign ownership rises

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Australia's government underlined its drive to draw up a register of foreign farm owners after data showed the amount of land owned at least in part by non-nationals had risen by an area bigger than Denmark in less than four years.

Barnaby Joyce, the Australian agriculture minister, said that plans for a register of land owned by foreigners, promised by the Liberal Party as part of its 2013 election campaign, was "firmly on track".

"The government is doing this properly," said Mr Joyce, flagging "community concerns arising from the incomplete picture" of farmland ownership offered by the historic process of periodic surveys.

While stressing that foreign investors was "vital" to the country's growth in agriculture, Mr Joyce also flagged the worries among many Australians at "an apparent recent marked increase in foreign investment in Australian agricultural land".

Foreign-owned farmland

The comments followed the release of official data showing that the area of Australian agricultural land owned by businesses with some level of foreign ownership had reached 49.6m hectares, up by 4.7m hectares since the end of 2010.

That represents 12.4% of Australia's total agricultural land, of 400m hectares, and is equivalent to an area twice the size of the UK.

A large proportion of the land is in Northern Territories, a largely livestock-producing state, and a stamping ground for the likes of Australian Agricultural Company, or AAco, the listed Australian beef giant in which Malaysia's Iffco is the second largest investor, with a 9.9% stake.

In Northern Territories, 17.7m hectares of farmland are foreign owned.

'We absolutely need it'

However, the biggest state for foreign ownership is Queensland, with 18.6m hectares, where, besides large ownership by AAco, which owns and manages 7m hectares of land in Australia, foreign investors have invested increasingly in the sugar industry too.

In Western Australia, the main grain growing state, 6.26m hectares is owned by companies with at least some foreign shareholders.

Investors from China to Qatar are known to have purchased Australian farmland, provoking concerns over foreign ownership in agriculture which came to a head late last year, when Canberra blocked the purchase by US-based Archer Daniels Midland of grains handler GrainCorp.

Among groups to defend foreign investment are Cargill Australia, the Australian arm of the US-based agribusiness giant, whose managing director Philippa Purser said last month that "in the global context it isn't a discussion about whether it is nice to have, we need it, we absolutely need it.

"At a global level, if we don't get more investment into ag and agribusiness we will not be able to feed the world going forward," Ms Purser said.


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