Five years ago, a security team at an experimental research farm in Iowa owned by the seed producer Dupont Pioneer saw men crawling through and digging in their cornfields. As they were watching over a farm full of proprietary genetically modified seeds, the security guards contacted the FBI, who subsequently launched an investigation straight out of a movie, complete with wiretaps and GPS tracking devices planted on rental cars. Now just this past Wednesday, a naturalized American citizen originally from China was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in stealing corn seeds and sending them to China.
Mo Hailong, a businessman employed by Beijing's Kings Nower Seed, worked alongside five other Chinese nationals to steal trade secrets from the agricultural giants Dupont Pioneer and Monsanto. Together they smuggled more than 1,000 pounds of corn seeds to Beijing—some found by customs officers hidden in manila envelopes amid large boxes of microwaveable popcorn—so that scientists at Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co., the parent company of Kings Nower Seed, could study and replicate them. It also happens that Mo's sister is married to the founder of Beijing Dabeinong Technology Co.
Mo, who has lived in the United States for 20 years and has a wife and two children who are US citizens, may be immediately deported when he is released. He will also have to pay restitution to Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer.
"We need to send a message to China that this kind of criminal behavior is not tolerated in the United States," US District Court Judge Stephanie Rose, who presided over the case, said.
Companies like Monsanto invest enormous sums of money to develop seeds that can produce big yields under a variety of conditions, and the seeds that they sell are patented to protect technology that is considered a trade secret. The FBI even treats theft of seeds as a national security issue, arguing that cutting-edge seed science is crucial to America's economy. The case of Mo and Kings Nower Seed is not the first in which a Chinese company has attempted to steal seed tech.
A "parent" or "inbred" seed "constitutes valuable intellectual property of a seed producer," the FBI wrote in a press release relating to a seed theft in 2013. "The estimated loss on an inbred line of seed is approximately five to eight years of research and a minimum of 30 to 40 million dollars."
Monsanto worked with the FBI and the US Attorney's Office throughout the investigation that culminated in Mo's sentencing.
"Monsanto appreciates all of the efforts that have been taken by the US Government to protect our intellectual property," a spokesperson for Monsanto told MUNCHIES. "Monsanto believes that innovations in the agriculture sector help provide abundant, affordable and safe food for our growing world… The ability to obtain Intellectual Property Rights protection allows individuals and companies to continue to invest in developing new and improved products that provide value to farmers as well as consumers."
In court, Mo spoke of how he left China in the decade following the Tiananmen Square massacre with dreams of a prosperous life in the United States. But he learned the hard way: America takes its corn very seriously.