International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.

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Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

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