Opinion: New tools for Big Ag to combat trade secrets theft

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John Nicely courtesy Library of Congress

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Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

When you think of trade secrets espionage, what comes to mind?

James Bond-style midnight break-ins to steal high-tech doo-dads or pharmaceutical products? Computer hacking? Former disgruntled employee theft? Yes, it’s all that… and for the U.S. agricultural sector, it’s a huge mounting problem.

Stealing agricultural trade secrets has been going on for some time — in fact, all the way back to farmers making unauthorized copies of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin — but high profile incidents in the past few years have raised public awareness.

Most recently, there is the case of Mo Hailong, a.k.a. Robert Mo.

Between 2011 and 2012, Mo and others stole Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer inbred corn seeds from Illinois and Iowa plots.

The idea was to take the seeds back to China to unlock genetically modified drought-resistant and pest-resistant traits valued at some $30 million to $40 million.

And Mo — and his merry band of co-conspirators — might have gotten away with it had not someone with DuPont Pioneer spotted Mo in a company field on his knees near Tama, Iowa.

Monsanto also spotted Mo in corn fields near Bondurant, Iowa.

The companies complained to FBI officials,  who then put Mo and others under surveillance.

Mo’s associates were arrested at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and found carrying stolen inbred seeds hidden in popcorn boxes.

Another Mo associate, Wang Hongwei, tried to take inbred seeds into Canada.

Eventually Mo admitted to the FBI he was spying for Kings Nower Seed, a Chinese seed company. This past January, Mo was convicted of conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

As it turns out, Mo’s little plot isn’t an isolated incident.

In what was a rare media interview for the FBI’s counterintelligence division, Assistant Director Randall Coleman admitted that intellectual property and trade secret theft has exploded in recent years with much of the threats coming from China.

So, it really comes as no surprise that Congress, under pressure from mega-conglomerate U.S. corporations, looked to find some law to put its collective fingers in the leaking dike.

On April 5, the Senate unanimously (87-0) passed a bill that will allow corporate trade secret victims to seek damages in federal civil court.

Given that Congress rarely passes anything these days unanimously, this shows the urgency of providing U.S. corporations with new tools to combat intellectual theft.

A 2013 report from the Commission on the Theft for Intellectual Property revealed:

The annual losses are likely to be comparable to the current annual level of U.S. exports to Asia — over $300 billion.

Here’s hoping the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 finds its way through the U.S. House and to the president’s desk.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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