KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The case of the missing corn seeds first broke in May 2011 when a manager at a DuPont research farm in east-central Iowa noticed a man on his knees, digging up the field.
When confronted, the man, Mo Hailong, who was with his colleague Wang Lei, appeared flushed. Mo told the manager that he worked for the University of Iowa and was traveling to a conference nearby.
When the manager paused to answered his cellphone, the two men sped off in a car, racing through a ditch to get away, federal authorities said.
What ensued was about a year of FBI surveillance of Mo and his associates, all but one of whom worked for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group or its subsidiary Kings Nower Seed.
It resulted in the arrest of Mo last December and the indictment of five other Chinese citizens on charges of stealing trade secrets in what the authorities and agriculture experts have called an unusual and brazen scheme to undercut expensive, time-consuming research.
China has long been implicated in economic espionage efforts involving aviation technology, paint formulas and financial data. Chinese knockoffs of fashion accessories have long held a place in the mainstream.
But the case of Mo — who was arraigned in Des Moines last week, pleaded not guilty and remains in custody — and a separate one in Kansas last year suggest that the agriculture sector is becoming a greater target, something that industry analysts fear could hurt the competitive advantage of farmers and big agriculture alike.
“Agriculture is an emerging trend that we’re seeing,” said Robert Anderson Jr., assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI, adding that the trend has developed internationally in the past two years.
“It’s pretty clear cut. Before then, the majority of the countries and hostile intelligence services within those countries were stealing the other stuff.”
The defendants in the Mo case visited numerous seed testing fields in Iowa and Illinois that were used by the big agriculture companies Pioneer, Monsanto and LG Seeds, the authorities said.
They bought a test plot of their own in Illinois, according to the complaint, and concealed stolen seeds in, among other things, microwave popcorn boxes and napkins from Subway restaurants.
The seeds that they were after are called inbreds, meaning they come from self-pollinating corn plants. Inbreds are eventually crossed with other inbreds to create hybrid seeds that are then sold to farmers, and they are bred to be durable in the face of drought and pests.
One inbred line takes five to eight years of research and can cost $30 million to $40 million to develop, federal prosecutors said.
In another other seed case, Zhang Weiqiang of Manhattan, Kan., a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience, a Colorado-based biopharmaceutical company, and Yan Wengui, of Stuttgart, Ark., a research geneticist for the U.S. Agriculture Department, are accused of giving proprietary rice seeds that contained medicinal qualities to crop researchers in their native China when those researchers traveled to the United States.
The proprietary rice seeds were found in the luggage of members of the Chinese delegation as they tried to leave the country, according to the indictment, and at the home of Zhang, who, along with Yan, was arrested in December.
As seed technology has become more costly and time-consuming to develop, “in some people’s eyes, it makes it more advantageous for them” to try to steal it because it “enables them to get a jump on three to five years of research on the back of somebody else’s time and effort that was put in,” said Andrew LaVigne, the president and chief executive of the American Seed Trade Association.
American farmers are concerned that stolen seeds could give their Chinese counterparts an unfair advantage because they could get access to the technologically advanced hybrids at lower prices, said Dave Miller, the research director for the Iowa Farm Bureau.
The Chinese have not developed a major corn hybrid since 2001, although the country’s second most popular corn, which debuted in 2007, was a collaboration between Pioneer and a Chinese company.
Analysts say one of the major problems is the fragmented seed industry in China.
Much of the breeding research is done in state-funded universities and academies, and there is poor communication between them and the companies that sell and trade the seeds. So research often fails to yield strong commercial results. This structure also has fostered theft within the Chinese seed market, one breeding consultant said.
“Some seed trading companies just went to breeding bases to steal the seeds. Some breeding companies would outsource breeding to farmers, but when the seeds were harvested, the farmers wouldn’t sell back to the breeding company because seed trading companies pay more.”