HIGH-STAKES ESPIONAGE IN THE CORN FIELD

CIMMYTStealing trade secrets has been a part of the business and international scene for a long time. I suspect such activity has made some people very rich when they don’t get caught and some lawyers very rich when they do.

Just last year Wisconsin made the national news scene when an employee at the Medical School of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa was caught trying to steal a cancer-fighting drug that was being developed. The stolen product and data were thought to be destined for China before the scheme was thwarted.

Military secrets, medical research, computer technology, certain oatmeal raison cookie recipes…it’s understandable why some people, companies, or countries might be tempted by any of these. The payday would be huge.

Agriculture has not been immune to incidents of unethical business activity. I recall a case about 15 years ago where the employee of one seed company stole inbred corn seeds and distributed them to a competitor for research and commercialization. His lawyer made money.

The development of transgenic crops has apparently raised the stakes. Recently, federal prosecutors arrested several Chinese citizens in conjunction with two separate incidents of hijacking proprietary seeds; one involved corn, the other rice. The corn crime is a tale of espionage that can be described as James Bond-like with a dose of Columbo and the American Gothic thrown-in for good measure.

Our story begins in an Iowa corn field during May 2011. A DuPont Pioneer seed company field manager notices an Asian man on his knees in a freshly planted field of corn that is destined for seed production. He confronts the man and asks him what he is doing.

The perpetrator explains he is an employee of the University of Iowa and the other man who was sitting in a nearby parked car was from China. He further explained they were on their way to an agricultural conference.

At that point, the Pioneer employee’s cell phone rang and as he conversed with the caller the two Chinese men hightailed it out of the field in their car by driving into and out of a ditch. The Pioneer employee was able to get the license plate number and later reported it to the FBI.

The rented car belonged to a man named Mo Hailong, a permanent resident of Florida who worked for the Kings Nower Seed Company of China. He was now on the FBI’s watch list and sure enough showed-up again in the fall. This time it was a Monsanto inbred corn field with two other employees of Kings Nower Seed. The trio were confronted by a Polk County, Iowa deputy and indicated they were just touring the Midwest looking at crops.

It was later discovered that Mr. Mo mailed 15 packages totaling nearly 350 pounds from a West Des Moines UPS Store. The boxes were sent to his home in Florida and assumed a tidy shipping charge of $1153.

Inbred corn seed is typically crossed to produce commercial hybrids. Development of inbreds can take several years with millions of dollars investment. Seed companies are understandably protective of their inbreds and where they are grown.

The only way to obtain seed is to dig it out of the soil before it germinates, harvest directly from a developed ear in an inbred field, or plant a bag of commercial hybrid corn and hope you can distinguish the one-half of one percent inbred corn that contaminates each bag. The Chinese men were apparently implementing all of these strategies.

Curious to this case is the fact that Mr. Mo and his associates knew which fields to target even though they were not marked. It’s being reported that the FBI is investigating the possibility of an “inside” accomplice.

The FBI began a physical surveillance of Mr. Mo and his band of seed renegades in April 2012. This is where the fun really begins with GPS tracking devices placed in rental vehicles along with the ability to monitor conversations.

It was soon learned that King Nower Seed had purchased a 40 acre farm near Monee Ill., for $600,000. Mr. Mo and his buddies bought seed corn at various locations in the Midwest and rented storage units to stash both their purchases and field-pilfered inbred seed. Eventually the corn would be shipped or driven to their Illinois farm or back to China.

In September 2012 four of the bandits traveled to O’Hare Airport. Two were headed directly to China, and one was on a domestic flight to Burlington Vt. In the luggage and on the persons of the two traveling to China, customs officials found corn seeds hidden in boxes of microwave popcorn and numerous seeds wrapped in about 30 Subway restaurant napkins. All the seeds were confiscated and the men were released.

The accomplice flying to Vermont was ultimately detained and searched at the Canada border. Again, corn seed was confiscated. Mr. Mo apparently had headed back to Florida.

Specific to this corn caper, six men have recently been charged with theft of proprietary seed genetics. I guess it takes a while to build a case. Mr. Mo is in custody, another lives in Canada with attempts being made for extradition, and four others reside in China. I don’t look for the latter gentlemen to be sightseeing in the U.S. anytime soon.

In other recent news, China has drastically ramped-up their rejection of U.S. corn shipments. Coincidence, I guess.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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