A Chinese scientist was convicted on Thursday by a federal jury in Kansas of conspiring to steal samples of a variety of genetically engineered rice seeds from a U.S. research facility, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.

Weiqiang Zhang, 50, a Chinese national living in Manhattan, Kansas, was convicted on three counts, including conspiracy to steal trade secrets and interstate transportation of stolen property, the department said in a statement.

Zhang, who has a doctorate from Louisiana State University, worked as a rice breeder for Kansas-based Ventria Bioscience Inc, which develops genetically programmed rice used in the therapeutic and medical fields.

He stole hundreds of rice seeds produced by Ventria and stored them at his Manhattan residence, the statement said.

In 2013, employees of a crop research institute in China visited Zhang in Kansas. U.S. customs officers found seeds belonging to Ventria in the luggage of Zhang's visitors as they prepared to leave the United States for China, the department said.

The number of international economic espionage cases referred to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is rising, up 15 percent each year from 2009 to 2014 and up 53 percent in 2015, according to the FBI.

In October, a geneticist at the U.S. Agriculture Department, Wengui Yan, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI when questioned about plans to send U.S. rice samples to China.

Yan, an Arkansas resident, admitted that a group of Chinese tourists in 2013 told him of their plans to steal engineered U.S. rice samples, but he first told investigators he had no knowledge of the plan.