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Australia and China eye joint farming plan
by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) May 31, 2012

Australia is seeking Chinese investment to develop farming land in its sprawling north in a joint bid to boost food security for the Asian giant's 1.3 billion citizens, reports said Thursday.

The two nations were due to publish a study into the proposal, which would see Chinese companies invest directly in northern farms focused mainly on beef, sheep, sugar and dairy, the Australian Financial Review reported.

Canberra and Beijing launched the study last May and its findings were due to be released within weeks, according to the newspaper.

Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson stressed that it would not involve "selling up" valuable national resources, nor "importing overseas labour and dedicating the production to Chinese consumption".

"It is designed to lift Australian food production for world markets," Emerson said from Beijing.

Chinese investment is a sensitive issue in Australia, with telecom Huawei banned for security reasons from bidding on the nation's broadband rollout earlier this year and several mining takeovers failing on similar grounds.

Rural conservative politicians have warned against selling valuable agricultural land to foreign investors, particularly China which is Australia's top trading partner due to bullish resources exports.

A government study into ownership of Australian agriculture published in January found that foreign firms controlled about half of the nation's key food industries but offshore investors owned just 11 percent of its farmland.

The study was commissioned to soothe community concern about foreign ownership of farming and Canberra said at the time that the findings should ease "misinformation and hysteria" about an "invasion" of foreign investors.

Foreign firms account for about half of the nation's wheat, dairy, sugar and red meat sectors, following a flurry of takeovers in recent years, but foreign ownership of land, at 11 percent, is little changed from 30 years ago.

Qatar's Hassad Food and Singapore's Olam International are among firms that have bought up Australian farmland to boost their own national food security.

While Emerson has urged Australians against letting racism creep into the debate, vocal opponent Bill Heffernan, a senator from the right-wing Liberal party, said it was important to be passionate about Australia's future.

"This is not xenophobic, there are clear loopholes in the foreign takeovers act and in the taxation act and this is a decline in the meaning of sovereignty," Heffernan told ABC radio.

Greens Senator Christine Milne said she was "very concerned" by the plan, particularly any involvement by foreign state-owned companies.

"What guarantees can we have that this is going to be in the context of trade as opposed to outsourcing and direct production of other countries' food supplies?" she told reporters.

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