Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor
Six Chinese nationals have been charged with conspiring to steal US trade secrets in an alleged plot to obtain bioengineered corn seed from American seed companies and send it to their own company in China.
The case was revealed in a one-count, 21-page indictment unsealed Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
According to documents filed in federal court, the Chinese company officials allegedly drove through rural areas of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana to dig up freshly planted seeds or collect samples of grown corn to obtain specimens of the valuable engineered seed stock.
The seeds represent years of work by American companies and millions of dollars in research and development. One affected company estimated that the loss of an inbred line of seed would wipe out 5 to 8 years of research and cost the company $30 to $40 million.
The Chinese men targeted seeds produced by Monsanto, LG Seeds, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of Dupont, according to the indictment.
The investigation apparently began in May 2011 after a seed company field manager noticed an Asian man on his knees in a freshly-planted corn field. A second Asian male was waiting nearby in a car.
What made the encounter especially suspicious is that the field was an unmarked test plot in a remote area of Iowa. Agents suspect the Chinese received inside information from the American seed companies revealing the secret locations of test fields.
When the Asian man was confronted in the field and asked what he was doing, he replied (falsely) that he worked for the University of Iowa and would soon be attending an agricultural conference in the state.
The project manager recorded the license number of the car and federal agents later traced it to a Chinese businessman in South Florida.