Skip to comments.Tech Heist: Seeds of Deceit (Chinese try to steal experimental GMO corn seed)
Posted on 03/23/2014 1:32:42 PM PDT by dennisw
Unassuming from the road, this farmstead served as the headquarters for a ring of international thieves bent on embezzling U.S. seed.
The FBI thwarts a ring of Chinese national thieves. Crouched on his hands and knees under an Iowa sky, Mo Hailong quickly dug in the rows of freshly planted seed corn. Just the day before, May 2, 2011, he and coworker Wang Lei, vice chairman of Kings Nower Seed of China, stopped at this same field near Tama, Iowa. The farmer told them he was planting seed corn.
With each shovel, Hailong found pay dirt: DuPont Pioneers latest parent genetics, the building blocks for the next generation of high-yielding hybrids. The men hoped these seeds would help their own company keep up with global competition.
Mos head snapped up as a truck approached, dust billowing behind. A DuPont Pioneer field manager pulled over and hopped out as Mo rose from his knees. The field manager questioned what Mo was doing, to which he gave a well-rehearsed response, "Were on our way to a research conference." Its an answer he had used before, but this time, with dirt under his nails and seeds in his pocket, he knew its effectiveness was compromised. Using the difference in culture and native languages, Mo tried to mask further suspicion. Then, the field managers phone rang. As he turned away, Mo hurried to Lei, waiting in the rental car. He jumped in and Lei swung the car around on the narrow dirt road. The field manager looked up from his phone to see the car and two Chinese nationals racing away.
That chance encounter with two Chinese nationals sneaking around rural Iowa raised the suspicion of DuPont Pioneer security officials. The FBI investigation that ignited ultimately busted an elaborate seed heist in Americas heartland.
The intense investigation culminated Dec. 12, 2013, when the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa charged six Chinese nationals with conspiracy to steal trade secrets from and commit overt acts against DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto Company and LG Seeds. As the nearly 50 pages of court documents spell out, this stealth operation was more than an uncoordinated smash and grab. Page after page unfolds in great detail, much like a spy novel, demonstrating the lengths these men took to steal U.S. seed technology.
The defendants are alleged to have conspired to steal inbred corn seed from the three companies and transfer the seed to China. The estimated value of an inbred line of seed is five to eight years of research and a minimum of $30 to $40 million.
Following the initial confrontations in May 2011, the DuPont Pioneer field manager alerted company security, who then tipped off the FBI during a routine visit on June 30. That field near Tama was planted with a variety of proprietary inbred or parent test seed. Because of its value to the companys future, its considered a trade secret, so the field is unmarked. Just how Mo and his co-conspirators targeted this field is still under investigation.
heist sat image Taken May 14, 2012, this Google Earth image captured activity at the Monee, Ill., farm that the espionage team used as their headquarters. Four months later, a Polk County Sheriffs deputy responded to a farm field near Bondurant, Iowa, following a report of suspicious activity by several Asian males. The officer identified Mo, Wang Lei and Li Shaoming. Mo told the deputy the men were driving across the Midwest looking at crops. He acted surprised that authorities would stop and question them. This field, planted in Monsanto seed, was also growing parent or inbred varieties. Again, it was unmarked, and only the company knew its exact contents.
On Sept. 27, Mo mailed 15 packages from a UPS store in West Des Moines, Iowa, to his home in Boca Raton, Fla. The contents, labeled as corn samples, weighed nearly 350 lb. The FBI does not know what Mo did with these samples after receiving them at his residence.
At that point, investigators were on high alert and began to monitor Mo and his counterparts in earnest on suspicion of property theft. In February 2012, Mo and Lei joined a group participating in the visit of then vice president and current president of China, Xi Jinping, to Iowa. Investigators say Lei boarded a bus at Chicago OHare International Airport, which took him and the group of Asians, to Urbandale, Iowa.
The next day, Mo was spotted by security at DuPont Pioneers headquarters on a tour with the group. However, he registered under the false identity of Hougang Wu, chairman of Dalian Zhangzidao Fishery Group. He was also spotted later that day on a tour of a Monsanto research facility in Ankeny, Iowa. That night, Mo attended a dinner hosted by the Iowa governor in honor of Chinas leader.
On Feb. 16, after attending an ag symposium at the World Food Prize building in Des Moines, Mo joined Lei and met with a Chinese seed executive and former DuPont Pioneer employee at a sports bar near their Urbandale hotel. The FBI says that mans wife is currently a corn geneticist researcher with DuPont Pioneer. That evening after attending another event, Mo returned to the hotel.
In April, the FBI followed Mo from his home in Florida to Chicago, where he rented a car. He spent the latter part of April driving through rural Illinois and northern Indiana. On April 26, Mo started spending time at a farm near Monee, Ill. It turns out that he bought the 40-acre parcel in March on behalf of Kings Nower North America for approximately $600,000.
Two days later, the FBI followed Mo to Adel, Iowa. During the trip, agents say he drove slowly at times, followed by short bursts of high speed. Once in Adel, he made U-turns and ducked into parking lots off the main road.
According to the FBI, these are classic counter-surveillance tactics. It wasnt until a few days later that agents realized why Mo put so much energy into not being followed.
On April 30, Mo visited a Pioneer seed dealer in Dallas Center, Iowa, and bought six bags of seed corn for $1,533.72 in cash. In the affidavit, the owner says Mo had bought seed from him for the past two years, always asking for the latest technology. This time, though, Mo showed up with a specific list of seed he wanted but was vague about how he intended to use it.
The next day, Mo drove to Pattonsburg, Mo., and bought six bags of DeKalb corn seed from a Monsanto dealer. He paid $1,366 in cash. The affidavit says the dealer told FBI investigators Mo had done the same thing for three years, always paying in cash and remaining vague about his intentions.
Following the purchase, Mo drove to Adel, where he unloaded the seed into a storage unit. The property manager confirmed to the FBI that unit #48 had been rented to Mo since April 2009. On May 2, help arrived. Ye Jian and Lin Yong began spending time with Mo at the farm in Monee. The trio ventured out and drove the back roads of Illinois and Iowa.
On May 11, the three men headed to a shipping store in Orland Park, Ill. Court documents say they unloaded five boxes with a total of 42 zip-lock bags of corn seed. Authorities believe this is about half of the 500 lb. of seed Mo purchased.
Quiet Summer The men laid low after the rush of spring planting. While farmers struggled to grow crops in the drought, Mo and his counterparts were apparently content to let fields mature. The next time FBI agents observed the men is August, when Ye was picked up by a Chinese-American realtor from the Chicago OHare airport. The two men spent the next few days at the farm in Monee and sightseeing in Chicago. On Aug. 25, Li, the CEO of Kings Nower Seed, arrived. With the team together, it was apparent they were ready to work.
FBI agents got permission to tap Yes cellphone and heard him discuss finding an additional storage unit in New Lenox, Ill.
Anticipating a similar activity pattern to the previous year, investigators planted an audio-recording device in Yes rental car. For a week, agents listened to conversations between Ye and Lin while the pair drove the rural roads of north-central Illinois. The device captured the pair identifying parent fields that belong to DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto as they stopped to steal, tag and categorize ears of corn. The men seemed well aware that what theyre doing is illegal.
Lin: These are actually very serious offenses. You, you ... Ye: They could treat us as spies! Lin: That is what weve been doing! What Im trying to say is, as for the charges, there could be several. Ye: Yeah. Lin: Its trespassing on other peoples private property, thats one; secondly, theft/larceny; and third, violation of IP law. Thats three charges.
The men went on to discuss the risky nature of spending so much time searching for seed, how it might impact their families, the fact that their boss, Li, knows the legal and personal risksand whether theres actually value in the end results. During the recording, the men admitted to collecting more than 300 samples from fields in 2011 of which 100 were duplicates.
Throughout September, the men were seen at the storage facilities in Adel and New Lenox. The affidavit says FBI investigators talked to the storage manager in New Lenox. He said locker #E17 was rented by Eugene Yu. On Sept. 27, the manager saw the men with hundreds of ears of corn stacked on shelving they installed. He witnessed Ye and Li putting the corn into individual bags. The manager says he told them they couldnt store perishables and food in the unit because it attracts rodents, and he gave them two days to move it. The next day, the men transferred the corn to the company farm in Monee.
On Sept. 29, Canadian resident Wang Hongwei and Mo arrived at the farm to help smuggle out the freshly collected seed. The listening devices recorded the men discussing how to divide the packages and the importance of cleaning the cars to remove evidence. As Mo explained, hes cautious because hes "done it too many timesway too many times." The men divided up and headed to the airport.
The next day, FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents were ready. Mo and Hongwei planned to take domestic flights, while Ye and Li were booked on flights to China. Inside Lis checked bags, agents found two bulk-sized microwave popcorn boxes. Hidden beneath the actual popcorn were 100 small manila envelopes of seed with whats believed to be code numbers written on each one. In his other checked bags, 13 brown grocery-type sacks were found, each with more envelopes. Yes bags contained 30 napkins, each wrapped around individual kernels and stashed inside clothing.
He also had a microwave popcorn box with an additional 100 napkins stuffed inside.
Customs agents approached the men about what they had found in their luggage. Li spoke minimal English and provided very little in the way of answers. Ye was paged over the loud speaker but didnt respond. Agents approached and questioned him. He told them that he was traveling alone and didnt know anyone else in the area. They found more napkins and corn seed stashed in his pockets. Authorities detained all of the seed.
In the meantime, Hongwei boarded a plane to Burlington, Vt. Because he had previously driven to that airport from Canada, officials thought he might return the same way. When Hongwei landed, an FBI crew was in place. However, according to the affidavit, Hongwei seemed to know something was up. He immediately began a series of driving maneuvers to detect and evade surveillance. Agents lost him after he whipped into a mall parking lot without a turn signal. The surveillance team alerted border agents at two nearby Canadian crossings.
At 7:40 p.m., Hongwei surfaced at the Highgate Springs Port of Entry.
A search of his car turned up 44 brown grocery bags nearly identical to the sacks found in Chicago. Each bag was numbered and contained approximately 20 manila envelopes with corn kernels. Authorities also found a notebook filled with GPS coordinates and handwritten notes, as well as a digital camera with hundreds of photos of production facilities and fields for DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto.
Hongwei told agents hed been visiting Burlington for the past few days. When agents asked about his boarding pass, he admitted to traveling to Chicago. They pressed him on the corn and why it was hidden under the seat. Hongwei said he knew he couldnt legally take it into Canada and said he purchased the corn from Mo in Chicago. Authorities let him go but keep the corn.
The investigation timeline stops, but in making the case for an arrest, the affidavit says some of the seed was tested at an independent lab. Nearly half of the confiscated seeds evaluated were confirmed to be inbred or parent line genetics. That technology is worth millions of dollarsand was on its way to a global competitor.
China wants our Genetically Modified Corn Seeds from Monsanto? LOL...the wheat is not fit to eat, so I say let them have the GM corn seeds, they will all be as fat as Americans with the same diseases.
Now, if it were heirloom seeds that are pure and safe, it would be a tragedy, and we should put them in prison.
and moose is in china ...
The Chinese do not eat much corn. This is for animal feed type corn
They made them put on long lab coats...very unnecessary but there was a security function to them.
What I’m going to say isn’t going to be popular:
I’m honestly HAPPY this happened to DuPont, and I almost wish the damage had been higher.
If you’re an American with robust BioChem skills and it appears likely that you’ll ask for reasonable pay, it’s very likely it will prove hard for you to get a job:
Companies prefer researchers who’ll settle for long hours, low-pay and must come over to the USA on visas permitting work at THAT SPECIFIC company, and no other —this gives the company an exotically high level of control over him/her.
It’s almost a form of indentured servitude, and for each such position it means a normal American will NOT have a job.
American companies hire such people —people from the very most piracy-prone country on Earth— and then they’re shocked —SHOCKED!— that they end-up ripped-off by them.
The cases most shocking are in sensitive defense tech outfits —they make the dodgiest hires for super sensitive stuff and then YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS...!
What this really is is US taxpayers and consumers SUBSIDIZING China.
Hell, I say LET ‘EM HAVE ‘EM. Perhaps they’ll grow gills and flippers and wriggle to the sea, solving a number of problems for the West.
Before you concern yourself with all of the ills of GMOs, you might first consider that their primary concern is yield per acre and number of people fed.
The anti-GMO crowd are wittingly or not, playing into the population control crowd’s game of suppressing global food supply.
Unfortunately there are people still starving. The solution to ending world hunger is not GMOs, it’s eliminating aid to the tyrants who starve their subjects and use our aid money for personal gain. When the subjects can’t take it anymore they can rise up 1776 style and make themselves citizens. Citizens with full bellies. In the mean time, I will continue to grow my own heirlooms. There’s something a bit frightening about people trying to eliminate my food supply.
GMO has been around for 20 years.
Like monkeys in a cage, Luddites like to mock and scream about GMO seeds, but they have nothing to offer as an alternative.
A special food category has been set up for Luddites, providing them with abroad range of food that fit their desires. But as with the homosexuals, they are not content to eat those foods and leave everyone else alone, they are so insecure in their beliefs that they must pass laws imposing their beliefs on everyone.
There is a huge and growing market for your foods.
Commercially grown wheat is not GMO, so your statement lacks logic. Using lab techniques to identify useful or harmful heritable traits and then incorporate or delete them is an excellent use of science in agriculture and hardly the doomsday herald the interwebs claim it to be.
I predict the first commercially successful GMO wheat will be a variety that lacks the specific proteins involved in celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
Monsanto will also patent a pesticide resistant GMO honeybee.
I further predict that the “epidemic” of wheat allergy/gluten intolerance may eventually be recognized as an autoimmune reaction to similar proteins caused by Lymes infection.
Hey, if you can’t invent it, steal it.
I don't eat corn or soy anymore. Tyring to eliminate grains altogether.
Indeed it is. In fact, pot growers have been doing exactly this for about 30 years now, and have tremendously increased the potency of marijuana. Back in the 70s it was about 6% THC but has been genetically engineered to be about 40-45% THC now. Your daddy's redbud is today's ditchweed.
I would much rather see the Chicoms stealing this agroscience.
You are wise...same here.
That was a nice nab. Let the chinks buy it from us. We already buy enough stuff from them.
GM Seeds and their plants are not food I want to eat, period.
See post #14 for real world experience.
I actually live in the county referenced and the article is a joke. Dave’s Chevron has excellent coffee, but it’s not where the farmers hang. He went there because it’s across the street from PGG. Either he never found any of the actual watering holes or he’s not mentioning them to maintain the appearance of strategic incompetence.
I tend to agree with the sabotage by eco-terrorists theory for the reasons mentioned in passing in the article. Dry land wheat farming is not the target market for RU ready wheat because they chem fallow the fields so it wasn’t tested here and accidental mixing or cross pollination is just not a viable theory. However, deliberately scattering some stolen seeds in field that is slated to be chem fallowed guarantees discovery.
So the real question is who the hell stole the seeds from Monsanto, were they stolen from storage or from test plots.
It may have been an attempt to manipulate wheat prices in general or advantage another country’s wheat crop specifically and be economic manipulation rather than eco-terror. Find the thief, find the answer.
I did read a story today about the FBI busting some Chinese nationals for stealing seed from test plots and trying to smuggle them out of the country.
“The solution to ending world hunger is not GMOs,”
The man with the solution is dead.
Your point is as valid as any....it is interesting that once these GM seeds grow and spread more seeds, it will cause problems. I read about the Chinese stealing seeds too....
The book Wheat Belly Cookbook talks about the new wheat that is meant to grow bigger crops in the fields being a problem to digestion, weight, and disease etc. Those were wheat seeds I meant to site originally, not GM wheat, it was confusing with the GM corn. Controversial stuff.