Two weeks ago, the news rippled across the commodity market that China had rejected a shipload of U.S. corn because it contained traces of genetic material from Syngenta’s Viptera seed technology. That genetic material has not been approved in China and was targeted a couple years ago by U.S. grain conglomerates Cargill and Bunge as unacceptable because of that reason. Farmers have been raising corn throughout the Cornbelt with the Viptera genetics, and since it has been approved in U.S. commercial channels, it has undoubtedly also made its way to China before this December.
Then suddenly several more shiploads of U.S. corn were rejected by China for the same reason. Then reports came from the Chinese ports that containers of distillers dried grains, produced in the refining of ethanol, were also being quarantined because they might contain the genetic material.
At first it sounded like Chinese port officials were just trying out some new genetic testing technology. Another theory was offered that shiploads of corn were backed up in Chinese ports due to delays in unloading and the port officials used their “unapproved” stamp just to clear out their harbors.
Neither was correct. But now we know what is going on.
Enter the world of a Tom Clancy novel. Crawling through a Cornbelt field, wet with dew on a foggy morning, several men whispering Mandarin were reaching up to pull ears of corn from stalks. The ears were quietly nestled in a cloth bag and would never see daylight for several weeks.
Suddenly, a crew of Americans, some with pistols drawn, others wearing lab coats, were shouting in English at the Chinese nationals to drop their bags, put their hands behind their back, and bend over the hoods of a fleet of pick-up trucks. The jig was up, as a 1940’s radio detective might announce.
In a pair of “you’ve got to be kidding” incidents, U.S. federal authorities have taken Chinese men into custody in the past two weeks for attempting to steal seed corn technology. In Kansas, the site of the interrupted scheme was a U.S. corn breeding company where seed was taken by a Chinese-born geneticist who was working in conjunction with another Chinese national employed at a federal research facility in Arkansas. Prosecutors allege the seed was destined to pass to a Chinese trade delegation visiting the U.S.
The Kansas biopharmaceutical company at Junction City was not publicly identified. However, in a parallel incident, DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto were the targets of six Chinese nationals working to obtain genetic material for Kings Nower Seed, a U.S.-subsidiary of a Beijing-based genetics company.
Unbeknownst to them, the FBI had placed GPS tracking devices on their cars and trailed them as they stopped at Iowa and Missouri cornfields to pick ears and at seed dealers to get bags of seed. The six, some of whom are not yet in custody, had been under the surveillance of customs agents. One was detained at Miami on his way back to China, and was caught with seed corn in his luggage.
Seed corn in his luggage. Not military secrets. Not fissionable nuclear material. Seed corn.
These foiled plots illustrate the value of the seed that is planted across the Cornbelt, particularly in a hungry world. And it answers why the Chinese have been rejecting shiploads of corn, which has been in retaliation for the discovery of the agricultural espionage. The impact last week pushed the corn market down about 10 cents. The victim of that was not Pioneer, nor Monsanto, but only the farmer who is reading this and now knows why the value of his corn eroded.
And farm policy critics wonder why agriculture needs a safety net.