Protecting the Technology That Feeds the World


Deputy Cass Bollman was about to enjoy a coffee break at a gas station in Iowa when the alert came across his radio: “Asian male wearing a suit walking through a farm field. … Nature of incident: suspicious.”

Bollman raced to the scene, a little northeast of Des Moines, where he talked to a farmer who had spotted the odd figure in the field. A few minutes later, Bollman had pulled over an SUV driven by Robert Mo, a Chinese national.

So begins one of the most unexpected stories of espionage ever told-in this case, by Minnesota journalist Mara Hvistendahl in her new book, The Scientist and the Spy.

America’s clashes with China are some of the biggest stories of the year, involving the coverup of coronavirus, the repercussions of a pandemic, and ongoing trade disputes between the world’s two biggest economies.

Hvistendahl highlights another source of friction: agricultural technology.

Robert Mo explained to Deputy Bollman that he and a colleague were conducting agronomic research.

Bollman didn’t know what to make of this. He let the men go with a warning: “If you’re going to be on somebody’s property, you need to let them know,” he said.

Later, as Bollman pondered the day’s events, he reached a vague and unsettling conclusion: “Something doesn’t seem right here.”

Deputy Bollman in fact had stumbled upon an act of industrial espionage: an effort by Chinese companies to steal U.S. seed technology.

He filed a report that caught the attention of FBI agent Mark Betten, who kicked off an investigation, complete with secret warrants, tapped phones, and surveillance planes. At one point, Mo tried to ship 250 pounds of stolen seeds to Hong Kong, but Agent Betten intercepted it.

Ultimately, Mo was arrested. In 2016, he admitted his crimes and was sentenced to three years in a federal prison. Last year, he was deported.

I remember when the story first broke-and today I’m delighted that we have a full account of the events, thanks to the publication of Hvistendahl’s new book.

Jnewspaper article lotournalism is sometimes defined as history’s rough draft, and when reporters wrote up their early accounts of the crime, many of them expressed amazement that industrial espionage could occur in a cornfield. Doesn’t it have to involve 5G networks, quantum computers, and cybersecurity?

This is a common mistake because few people regard agriculture as a high-tech business. Think of what former U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg said about farming: “You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Moreover, he explained, it doesn’t require much “gray matter.”

If only it were that simple. It turns out that your cell phone isn’t the only destination for innovative technology.

A massive amount of research and development goes into every seed. Thanks to genetic modification, gene editing, and other breeding technologies, we’re now planting the best crops the world has ever known, allowing us to grow more food on less land than ever before.

China wants to steal this intellectual property because it has more than a billion mouths to feed, and not enough arable land. It wants crops as good as ours. Rather than acquiring the technology through honest negotiations, some of its companies have resorted to thievery.

I’ve known about these rapacious practices for years. Once I toured a tractor factory, marveling at the robots that worked on its assembly line. It was a miracle of automation. The company was proud to show it off-but our guide mentioned that Chinese nationals weren’t allowed on the tour.

Controlling access to wide-open cornfields may be harder than keeping people out of factories, but rural folks are always on the lookout for strangers. When an unfamiliar vehicle drives down your gravel road, you tend to notice. Sometimes you even call your neighbor. I’ve done it plenty of times.

This awareness led to the apprehension of Robert Mo. But other agents are almost certainly still out there. They’re sneaking through test plots right now, stealing seeds and sending them back to China, where scientists unlock their high-tech ingredients. When they do, every American pays a price.

The Chinese are planning for their future, by any means necessary.

We’ve got to protect ours.

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Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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