CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — As farmers work to plant the fields of Iowa this week, the FBI still lists five Chinese nationals as ‘wanted’ for stealing seed corn over the past three years, an alleged act of espionage that could put millions of dollars in the balance.
Earlier this year, Mo Hailong, also known as Robert Mo, pleaded not guilty to a count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets. His trial is now set for September 24 in federal court in Des Moines.
Mo is accused of bring the ringleader for an elaborate network of men trying to steal inbred corn seed from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto farm fields in Iowa and Illinois in 2011. In following months, investigators say the six men worked to ship the corn seeds back to China.
While all six are charged, only Mo is facing trial. The other five men are believed to be in China, which does not share extradition with the United States.
FBI Special Agent Thomas Metz of the Omaha office has been working this case for years. Metz, through an FBI statement in late April, identified the importance of this case.
“Economic espionage steals well-merited, protected research from American businesses and is exceptionally damaging when the theft of these ideas is meant to benefit a foreign government,” Metz said in the statement from the FBI Omaha office.
Dave Miller, research director of the Iowa Farm Bureau, acknowledged this is an unusual situation and that “makes it somewhat interesting”. Especially as farms can be accessed easily in most cases.
“Historically, it’s not been a problem in the United States and we don’t tend to put up fences,” said Miller. “This is a bit of a unique case from that perspective.”
DuPont Pioneer did not comment publicly on the case as Mo’s trial is months away. The company did refer us to Fayette County farmer Tim Burrack, who is with a group called Truth About Trade & Technology.
“Intellectual property is extremely valuable to these seed corn companies and extremely valuable to me,” said Burrack. “When you look at the investment it takes to develop a trait in seed corn today, it’s $200 (million) to $300 million.
“That’s why a bag of seed corn is $300 today.”
The timeline on the seed corn espionage case from the Department of Justice documents:
May 2011: The Department of Justice claims, in May 2011, Mo and another man, Wang Lei, were observed near a recently planted field of inbred corn seed from the Pioneer Hi-Bred facility just outside of Dysart, in Tama County. The complaint said Mo told a Pioneer manager that he was with the University of Iowa and traveling to a conference in the area. A September 2011 incident in a Monsanto field near Bondurant also alleges Mo and two other men were in the field.
September 2011: Mo Hailong mailed 15 packages from a UPS store in West Des Moines to his home in Boca Raton, Florida. Total weight of the packages was 341 pounds.
January 2012: Mo Hailong attends tours of DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto facilities with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping under a different identity. Xi was on a tour of Iowa agricultural plants.
May 2012: Mo Hailong and two other men tried to ship 250 pounds of seed corn, packaged in 42, five-gallon Ziploc bags from a Federal Express in Orland Park, Illinois to Hong Kong.
August 2012: The men feel the eyes watching them as Lin Yong warns another man, Ye Jian, that must be careful not to get caught by police. Also that month, the two men are accused of taking inbred corn seed from a Pioneer Hi-Bred field near Green Valley, Illinois. This continued in Monsanto fields in other Illinois locations.
September 2012: Another man, Li Shaoming, is alleged to smuggle corn seed from Monee, Illinois to China. The DOJ claims Li concealed 374 small manila envelopes each containing small quantities of corn seed within two boxed of Pop Weaver brand microwave popcorn boxes.
September 2012: Wang Hongwei, one of the six men, tried to conceal 44 small brown bags, each containing corn seed, underneath car seats as he tried to drive into Canada at Highgate, Vermont.
December 11, 2013: Robert Mo is arrested in Miami.
With Mo’s trial still months away, this case also presents a delicate point in the agricultural relationship between the United States and China.
“China is projected in the year 2021 to be the number one corn importer in the United States,” said Burrack. “China is a huge market in the future and this is a very sensitive issue.”
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