From Midwest Farms to Mainland China—How the FBI Stopped the Theft of US Trade Secrets

When you think of crime fighting by the FBI, you probably think of drug cartels, the Mob, or brutal homicides. However, the agency also protects vital American assets.

In one recent case, the assets were proprietary corn seeds. While that might not seem like a big deal, the seeds in question were high-tech corn seeds developed by Pioneer DuPont.

Executives from the company estimated that had the genetic material been stolen by the Chinese, it would have cost them at least $30 million and the 5-8 years of research involved in developing them.

The trail started with the observation that an Asian man was digging in a cornfield in Iowa. Not just any cornfield—a grower field where companies test their products.

A field manager spotted the man and confronted him. The guy insisted that he worked for a local university and then hurriedly drove off—but not before the manager got his license plate.

The incident just happened to come up when FBI agents made a routine liaison visit to DuPont Pioneer’s offices in Des Moines in 2012. By the time they were done with the visit, the FBI agents had obtained Mo Hailong’s name and address in Florida.

Coincidentally, on a separate visit to another seed producer in the area, officials at the company had just been to China and relayed the names of the people they had met. They mentioned Mo Hailong and ID’ed him from a picture.

That put FBI agents on the trail full time leading them into the complex world of proprietary corn breeding. The seeds were inbred which meant that they could be replanted each year.

The case was a challenge. It grew to include five other conspirators. Tracking them across rural areas in six states posed logistical challenges. Also difficult was explaining the technology clearly enough to get warrants while protecting the company’s property right.

The investigation was a success—revealing that Mo and his conspirators were stealing seeds from farms across the Midwest to send in bulk to China. In fact, the men tried to ship 250 pounds of corn seed to Hong Kong from Illinois.

Authorities arrested Mo and five others were in December 2013, and Mo plead guilty last January. His co-conspirators are thought to be in China.

This was not an isolated case. The authorities made an arrest of two Chinese agricultural scientists who tried to steal rice seeds from a research facility in Arkansas. The FBI arrested them at the same time so as not to spook the other criminals.

With the stakes of America’s biotechnological advances so high, it pays to be vigilant and report events that may seem trivial at first glance.


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