Chinese seed spies stalk GMO producers

Posted by Christine, August 25, 2015

Ted Genoways, contributing editor for the New Republic and author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, covers Chinese seed spies and the FBI, revealing troubling strategies of food as a weapon. Read the entire story here.

In December 2013, after collecting this evidence, U.S. marshals arrived at Mo’s home in Boca Raton, Florida. He was taken into custody and extradited to Iowa, where he has been under house arrest in Des Moines ever since. The FBI also brought charges against five alleged co-conspirators, all Chinese, who remain at large, including the three men stopped by customs agents, and eventually against Mo’s sister, Mo Yun, as well. Mo and his sister are scheduled to stand trial before a federal court in Iowa in September on charges of conspiracy to steal trade secrets. If convicted, they face up to ten years in prison and a $5 million fine.

This may seem like a lot of post-September 11 cloak-and-dagger for a few corn seeds, but the U.S. government believes that something much larger is going on. This theft, they argue, stems from an undeniable and dangerous fact: Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.

Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty
Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg / Getty

If China hopes to feed (and pacify) its growing population while also loosening the very real stranglehold that America has on its national food supply, its farmers have to start producing a lot more corn—not just enough to meet their domestic demand in good years but enough to maintain a stockpile to offset their global market impact during bad ones. For decades, China has increased corn yields by putting more acres into production, but they’re running out of arable land, and the USDA now estimates that Chinese corn consumption will rise by 41 percent by 2023, far outpacing production increases. The only tenable way for China to meet its own demand, then, is by planting high-performance hybrids, which can single-handedly double or potentially even triple per-acre corn production. Chinese scientists haven’t developed a significant corn hybrid in years. But Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, the two American seed giants, have produced so many successful hybrids that they now control 45 percent of all the seed sold in the world.

The Department of Justice maintains that China is quietly permitting and even encouraging companies to steal American agricultural secrets right out of the ground. Acquiring the technology behind these next-generation hybrids could save companies like DBN Group—and the country—as much as a decade, and many millions of dollars, in research. And, plant geneticists familiar with the case told me, the very fact that Kings Nower Seed has brought to market—and intended to bring more—products with stolen genetics hints that the Chinese government is complicit. The theft is not hard to detect or prove; the only way that DBN Group could hope to get away with this scheme is if China were pushing such spying as a matter of policy.

In fact, a 2011 report prepared by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which advises the president on intelligence matters related to national security, listed “agricultural technology” among the targets “likely to be of greatest interest” to spies from Russia and China. “Surging prices for food,” the report stated, “may increase the value of and interest in collecting U.S. technologies related to crop production, such as genetic engineering, improved seeds, and fertilizer.” Since that report, the Department of Justice has cracked down, successfully prosecuting Chinese national Kexue Huang for stealing secrets related to organic fertilizer production and an unidentified “new food product” while he was employed at both Dow AgroSciences and Cargill, as well as Weiqiang Zhang, for theft of genetically engineered rice seeds from Colorado-based Ventria Bioscience.

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