Six Chinese nationals were indicted in Iowa on charges of plotting to steal genetically modified seeds worth tens of millions of dollars to Monsanto and DuPont.
The indictments follow the arrest last week of Mo Hailong, director of international business at Beijing Dabeinong Technology, who was accused of stealing trade secrets after he was found digging in a Iowa cornfield. The indictment of Mo and five others, filed on Dec. 17, was unsealed Thursday in federal court in Des Moines.
The U.S. alleges Mo and the other defendants stole inbred corn seed from production fields in Iowa and Illinois to benefit Kings Nower Seed, a unit of Dabeinong Technology's parent company. Inbred lines, developed by scientists to have a particular trait such as resistance to herbicides, are crossbred with other lines to develop hybrid seeds, the U.S. said.
In May 2012, Mo and two other defendants “attempted to ship approximately 250 pounds of corn seed, packaged in 42, five-gallon zip-lock bags contained in five separate boxes,” from Illinois to Hong Kong, according to the indictment.
Mo's attorney, Valentin Rodriguez Jr., didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on the indictment.
Last week he said Mo had “no intention to commit any crime” and that the government hadn't been able to prove that any of the seeds were proprietary to Monsanto or DuPont.
The investigation started when DuPont's Pioneer seed unit detected suspicious activity, according to a statement by Klinefeldt's office.
Mo and others visited farms, and bought seed and individual ears of corn, stashing the items in storage lockers to be shipped back to China, according to an affidavit by FBI special agent Mark Betten filed with the initial complaint. In China, scientists would use the seed and corn to develop their own products, the U.S. said in court papers.
Mo and Wang Lei, the vice chairman of Kings Nower Seed, approached a grower of a Pioneer test field near Tama, Iowa, on May 2, 2011, and “asked what he was planting in his field,” the FBI agent said in his affidavit. “The grower replied seed corn.”
The next day, “a Pioneer field manager saw Mo on his knees in the same grower's field, which had just been planted within the previous two days, and another Asian male sitting in a nearby car,” Betten said.
Four months later, Mo, Wang Lei and another scientist were stopped by a deputy from the Polk County's Sheriff's Office, responding to a report of “Asian males acting suspiciously near a farm field in Bondurant, Iowa,” Betten said. Mo told the deputy they were driving across the Midwest looking at crops, he said.
“Pioneer executives estimated that the loss of an inbred line of seed would result in losing approximately 5-8 years of research and a minimum of $30 million-$40 million,” Betten said in the filing.
The defendants were aware that they risked prosecution in the U.S., according to the indictment, citing taped conversations during the investigation.
“Nowadays, the U.S. is very hostile to China on this matter,” Lin said to Ye in September 2012, according to the indictment. “If they max the punishment, then we are done.”
In another exchange between the two, according to the U.S., Lin asked how to respond if they were stopped by the police. Ye replied, “depends on where. The only thing to say, if in the fields, would be that we are students ... working on surveys.”