Tim Burrack, a northern Iowa farmer in his 44th growing season,
has taken to keeping a wary eye out for unfamiliar vehicles
around his 300 acres of genetically modified corn seeds.
Along with other farmers in this vast agricultural region, he
has upped his vigilance ever since Mo Hailong and six other
Chinese nationals were accused by U.S. authorities in 2013 of
digging up seeds from Iowa farms and planning to send them back
The case, in which Mo pleaded guilty in January, has laid bare
the value -- and vulnerability -- of advanced food technology in
a world with 7 billion mouths to feed, 1.36 billion of them
Citing that case and others as evidence of a growing economic
and national security threat to America's farm sector, U.S. law
enforcement officials are urging agriculture executives and
security officers to increase their vigilance and report any
But on a March 30 visit to Iowa, Justice Department officials
could offer little advice to ensure against similar thefts,
underlining how agricultural technology lying in open fields can
be more vulnerable than a computer network or a factory floor.
"It may range down to traditional barriers like a fence and
doing human patrols to making sure you get good visuals on
what's occurring," Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, head
of the Justice Department’s national security division, said
when touring Iowa State University.
But agriculture sector executives say fences and guards are not
feasible, due to the high cost and impracticality of guarding
hundreds of thousands of acres.
Tom McBride, intellectual property attorney at Monsanto -- one
of the firms whose seeds were targeted by Mo -- said it
safeguards its genetically modified organism (GMO) technology by
protecting its computers, patenting seeds and keeping fields
like Burrack's unmarked. Monsanto says it is not considering
physical barriers like fences or guards.
The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department say cases of espionage
in the agriculture sector have been growing since Mo was first
discovered digging in an Iowan field in May 2011. Over the past
two years, U.S. companies, government research facilities and
universities have all been targeted, according to the FBI.
Although prosecutors were unable to establish a Chinese
government link to Mo's group, the case adds to U.S.-China
frictions over what Washington says is increasing economic
espionage and trade secret theft by Beijing and its proxies.
A U.S. law enforcement official told Reuters the agency looked
for a connection between the Chinese government and the
conspiracy carried out by Mo.
“In cases like this, we can see connections, but proving to the
threshold needed in court requires that we have documents that
the government has directed this,” the official said. “It’s
almost impossible to get.”
A Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington, Zhu Haiquan, said he
did not have detailed information on the Mo case but that China
"stands firm" on the protection of intellectual property and
maintains "constant communication and cooperation" with the U.S.
government on the issue.
On his visit to Washington last September, President Xi Jinping
reiterated China's denial of any government role in the hacking
of U.S. corporate secrets.
Mo, an employee of Chinese firm Kings Nower Seed, pleaded guilty
to stealing seed grown by U.S. firms Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer
and LG Seeds.
Prosecutors say he specifically targeted fields that grow the
parent seeds needed to replicate GMO corn. The FBI says it
suspects he was given the location by workers for the seed
companies, but did not charge any employees.
DuPont Pioneer and LG Seeds declined to comment for this story.
Mo, whose case was prosecuted by the Justice Department as a
national security matter rather than a simple criminal case, now
faces a sentence of up to five years in prison. Five others
charged in the case are still wanted by the FBI and are believed
to have fled to China or Argentina. Charges were dropped against
a sixth Chinese suspect.
The number of international economic espionage cases referred to
the FBI is rising, up 15 percent each year between 2009 and 2014
and up 53 percent in 2015. The majority of cases reported
involve Chinese nationals, the U.S. law enforcement official
told Reuters. In the agriculture sector, organic insecticide,
irrigation equipment and rice, along with corn, are all
suspected to have been targeted, including by Chinese nationals,
the official said.
Mo Hongjian, vice president of Kings Nower Seed's parent
company, Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, declined to comment
on the case or on the company's connection with the Chinese
The parent firm is privately owned, but says it receives
government money for research in “science and technology."
China bans commercial growing of GMO grains due to public
opposition to the technology and imports of GMO corn have to be
approved by the agriculture ministry. Still, President Xi called
in 2014 for China to innovate and dominate the technique, which
promises high yields through resistance to drought, pests and
In January, a Greenpeace report found some Chinese farmers are
illegally growing GMO corn whose strains belong to companies
including Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer.
Monsanto, which supplies Burrack's seed, said it can block
foreign groups who request to tour their lab and learning center
in Huxley, Iowa. For the past few years, Monsanto says it has
run its own background checks on Chinese delegations that ask
for a tour, and, if they are approved, boosts security to be
sure they do not steal anything or take pictures.
In Washington, U.S. senators have called for a review of the $43
billion deal by state-owned ChemChina to buy Swiss seed group
Syngenta, which generates nearly a quarter of its revenue from
Acquiring GMO seed and successfully recreating a corn plant
would allow Chinese companies to skip over roughly eight years
of research and $1.5 billion spent annually by Monsanto to
develop the corn, the company says.
Burrack's farm itself was not targeted by Mo, though he grows
the Monsanto parent seed that the Chinese national was digging
for. Burrack grows the corn in two fields in front of and behind
his house where he can watch them, a small part of his 2,800-
He said he is told by Monsanto where and when to plant the
parent seed, but has never been told to keep what he is planting
"What no one seems to understand is that they’re stealing from
people like me,” Burrack said. “They’re stealing the research
that farmers pay for when they buy Monsanto seed.”