Three Chinese nationals have been charged in two separate cases of trying to steal seed technology, trade secrets under development in the United States, authorities said on Thursday.
After a two-year investigation, a man working for a Chinese conglomerate was arrested on charges of stealing inbred corn seed from production fields in Iowa and Illinois and trying to smuggle it into China, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa Nicholas Klinefeldt said.
The man, Mo Hailong, director of the international business of the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co., a part of DBN Group, was in the U.S. legally.
But prosecutors said Mo and others who were not named conspired to steal from several U.S. seed companies between September 2011 and October 2012.
The others included employees at U.S. seed companies who provided locations where experiments with genetically altered seeds took place; or they provided gene sequencing information for the bio-engineered seeds, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Iowa.
Both Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer, the agricultural unit of DuPont, and Missouri-based Monsanto, two of the world’s largest agricultural seed companies, said they were co-operating with federal authorities in the ongoing probe.
The investigation began after DuPont Pioneer security staff detected suspicious activity in fields where the company was testing new types of seed, and notified authorities.
In the second case, two agricultural scientists from China were charged with trying to steal samples of a variety of seeds from a biopharmaceutical company’s research facility in Kansas.
Zhang Weiqiang, 47, of Manhattan, Kansas, and Yan Wengui, 63, of Stuttgart, Arkansas, were charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas Barry Grissom.
Grissom’s office declined to name the company, which had invested about US$75 million in patented technology used to create seeds containing recombinant proteins, except to say it “has an extensive intellectual property portfolio of more than 100 issued and pending patents and exclusive licenses to issue patents.”
Grissom’s spokesman, Jim Cross, said the two cases were unrelated.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found stolen seeds in the luggage of a group of visitors from China who were about to return home on Aug. 7, according to papers filed in the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas.
The group had visited various agricultural facilities and universities in the Midwest, as well as the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuggart, Ark.
According to the complaint Zhang and Yan, both citizens of the People’s Republic of China, had arranged for the Chinese delegation to visit the United States last summer and gave them the stolen seeds.
Zhang had worked as an agricultural seed breeder for the unnamed biopharmaceutical company since 2008, while Yan worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a rice geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center.
If convicted, Zhang and Yan face a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Lawyers for all three men could not be reached for comment.
— Carey Gillam is a Reuters correspondent covering agribusiness from St. Louis, Mo.