Federal authorities have filed charges for six Chinese nationals in an alleged scheme to steal valuable corn seeds from U.S. seed manufacturing companies for the benefit of their China-based seed companies.
Mo Hailong, Li Shaoming, Wang Lei, Wang Hongwei, Ye Jian and Lin Yong each have been indicted on conspiring to steal trade secrets from U.S. seed companies, according to an indictment filed on Tuesday in the U.S. Southern District Court of Iowa. Mo was detained last week, but the others remain at large, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Southern District Court.
Mo’s attorney, Valentin Rodriguez, Jr., did not return a message seeking comment. Mo was arrested on Dec. 10 in Florida, and will be to Iowa.
Authorities first announced that they believed they had foiled an international agricultural espionage conspiracy last week.
In some instances, those charged are accused of digging freshly planted “inbred” corn seeds out of the ground and stealing ears of corn from production fields of Dupont Pioneer and Monsanto in Iowa and Illinois. In one case, Ye Jian attempted to smuggle corn seeds packed in Subway napkins tucked inside boxes of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn on a flight from Chicago to Beijing, according to the indictment.
In another instance, Mo Hailong was seen on his knees digging in the ground where “inbred” seeds had just been planted in a Pioneer field in Dysart while Wang Lei waited in a car, according to the indictment. Upon being confronted by a field manager, Mo said he was a University of Iowa employee traveling to a conference in the area, according to the indictment.
“When the Pioneer Field Manager was distracted by a phone call, defendants, Mo Hailong and Wang Lei, left the area in the car operated by Wang Lei at a high rate of speed,” according to the indictment.
An inbred or parent line of seed is particularly valuable because it yields superior crops. Those seed lines take five to eight years to produce and is valued at a minimum of $30 million, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Nicholas A. Klinefeldt.
The conspiracy played out from April 2011 to December of 2012, and involved Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto Company and LG Seeds, according to the 22-page indictment. In that time, the defendants are accused of stealing and transporting hundreds of seeds to China.
Several of the accused have positions within Chinese seed companies, and Klinefeldt said in the statement those companies stood to benefit from the theft of trade secrets.
According to the indictment:
In a September 2012 conversation between Lin Yong and Ye Jian, they discussed that their actions “actually very serious offenses” and that they could be treated as spies, according to the indictment.
“I mentioned to Dr. Li that I don’t agree on running this project for such a long time,” Lin said, according to the indictment. Ye responded, according to the indictment, “the longer the time is the more likely we get into trouble.”