International Espionage Goes to Seed in Iowa Corn-Theft Case

Chinese corporate spies arrested for allegedly stealing patented biotech seeds.

Cornfields in Atalissa, Iowa. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Dec 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A gang of bumbling Chinese crop scientists, a team of G-men relegated to the desolate farmscapes of rural Iowa, and the alleged theft of…patented seeds?!

It may not exactly be the makings of a blockbuster Hollywood thriller, but surely the Coen brothers could do something fun with it.

Call it The Great Iowa Corn Caper. Here's the real-life plot summary: In charges filed last week, FBI agents contend that Mo Hailong (alias Robert Mo), a Chinese citizen lawfully residing in Miami, was the ringleader of a plot to steal bio-engineered corn seeds from test fields in Iowa and other Midwestern states to send them back to his employer, Kings Nower Seed, a subsidiary of the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Company.

It all sounds rather boring, as international intrigues go—until you read the indictment. Then, with a little imagination, it becomes kind of hilarious.

For example, Mo first attracted the attention of Pioneer, the giant seed company owned by DuPont, in May 2011: “A Pioneer field manager saw Mo on his knees in the…field, which had just been planted within the previous two days, and another Asian male sitting in a nearby car,” according to court documents. “The field manager confronted Mo in the field and asked what he was doing. Mo said that he worked for the University of Iowa and the other individual in the car was from China.… When the field manager received a telephone call, Mo and the Asian male quickly departed the area, driving down through the ditch in order to leave quickly. The field manager described Mo as being very nervous and his face was flushed.”

For the next year and a half, the FBI tailed Mo on his intermittent trips to Iowa and the Midwest, where he was joined by a rotating cast of fellow Chinese as they went bumping along the back roads in rental cars in search of corporate test plots and patent-protected “inbred” seeds. (As much as that sounds like we’re veering into Deliverance territory, “inbred,” in agriculture parlance, is one way to engineer seeds to produce desired traits.)

You have to wonder how, working the gravel back roads of Iowa, surrounded by nothing but cornfields, the FBI kept its cover. But it appears that only once, in April 2012, did Mo believe the feds were onto him, “taking what agents considered to be deliberate counter-surveillance activity, such as driving slowly on the interstate for prolonged periods of time followed by short bursts of high speed driving.”

In addition to trolling the back roads and purloining seeds from the likes of Pioneer, Mo also legally purchased thousands of dollars' worth of patent-protected seeds from seed dealers, though he would never sign the binding “growing agreement” required by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer, the paperwork specifying how the seeds would be used—and more significantly, how they wouldn’t be. The contracts block farmers from isolating the “inbred” or “parent” seeds and cultivating them in future seasons without relicensing the technology from the big ag giants. If that's confusing, think of it as a limit on making the biotech equivalent of bootleg DVDs.

There are any number of comedic encounters as well. Like the time the manager of a self-storage facility in New Lenox, Ill., confronted one of the Chinese operatives and told him he couldn’t store “hundreds of ears of corn” in a rented locker because it would attract rodents. I somehow picture John Goodman playing the part, or Steve Buscemi. Or there's the panicky conversation between two of Mo’s alleged coconspirators picked up by the feds via an “audio listening device” secretly installed on their rental car. Excerpt:

LIN: These are actually very serious offenses. You, you—

YE: They could treat us as spies!

LIN: That is what we’ve been doing! What I am trying to say is, as for the charges, there could be several—

Indeed. We are, after all, reading this in a criminal indictment.

While the idea of the FBI trailing a bunch of Chinese guys intent on stealing corn across The Bridges of Madison County country is full of comic potential, big agribusiness doesn’t find it so funny. Corporate execs are quoted in the court papers as saying, “the loss of an inbred line of seed would result in losing approximately 5–8 years of research and a minimum of $30–$40 million dollars, potentially much more, if the product is very successful.”

The indictment suggests that others remain under investigation, including employees at a U.S.-based seed company who may have leaked proprietary information to Mo. In the same week, charges were filed by the FBI in a separate case in Kansas, also against Chinese nationals, who were accused of stealing genetically modified rice from Colorado-based Ventria Bioscience.

So wait—now the Chinese are stealing rice from the U.S.?