Saturday, September 20, 2014

FBI Catches Seed Thieves
February 6, 2014 by John Parker | No Comments

Agricultural technology developed in the United States is, in many ways, a model for the rest of the world. It is one reason that recent information about another country trying to steal American agricultural technology is an intriguing story. It reads like some kind of spy novel.

Back in December, federal prosecutors arrested several Chinese natives for conspiring to steal seed samples and trade secrets in two different cases. One of these involved two scientists stealing and transferring seed from a Kansas research organization. Several individuals were involved in the other case in Iowa where they were trying to steal trade secrets from two of the country’s leading seed companies.

It takes from five to eight years and $30 to $40 million or more to develop certain new seed lines. They have the potential to increase resistance to plant insects and diseases and increase crop yields. Protecting these newly developed seeds is serious business for these companies.

In the Kansas case, two Chinese scientists were charged with trying to steal samples of a variety of seeds from a research facility. This company has spent about $75 million to develop a number of patented and other seeds.

In 2012, these two Chinese scientists went to China for a visit. While there, they met with a group of Chinese who then came to this country last summer. While here, one of the scientists took them out to the company’s rice center. In August, U.S. Customs agents found stolen seeds in the luggage of the group of visitors getting on a plane to return to China.

Similar seed samples were found at the home of another one of the scientists, according to a later FBI search. Now one of these men is in custody and the other one had a recent detention hearing.

In the second case, a series of suspicious activities took place in several Iowa fields. In May, a grower under contract to do research for a seed company was approached by an Asian male and another man. They were asking what he planted. The next day, a seed company field manager saw a man kneeling in the same field and stopped him. When the field manager got a phone call, the man and another one ran, but the field manager had their license number. They tracked down the individual that was in the field.

Sometime later, a sheriff’s office in another county got a report of an Asian man acting suspiciously in a cornfield where the farmer was growing corn under contract with a seed company. It was the same man they identified earlier. He claimed he was studying corn crops.

After tracking the man’s activities, FBI documents indicated he and another man had met with the vice president of China in 2012. They had also continued to collect seed samples from some fields in Illinois. After stealing the seed, these conspirators attempted to transfer the samples to China, but were not successful.

It is an intriguing story and illustrates how much China wants U.S. seed technology. And, this is just one kind of technology that some other countries would like to get without paying for development.

Local farmers over the years have been quick to adopt new seed technology. While the seed is not cheap, the advantages in disease and herbicide resistance, fewer trips over the field plus increased yields have made them profitable to buy and plant.

Everyone should be thankful to have companies and government research organizations that have the ability and funds to develop this new technology.

Parker is an independent agricultural writer.

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