Agricultural Industrial Espionage

12 November 2016

In an industry where information is power, dishonest competitors may steal agrichemical company data and use it to their advantage. While this may sound a little like a James Bond movie plot, industrial espionage is a real event.

Take for example, the case from October 2016, when a Chinese man was sent to prison for 3 years. According to the Des Moines Register he, “pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to steal trade secrets from Pioneer and Monsanto. The crime was part of a years-long conspiracy involving several Chinese citizens aimed at stealing valuable patented corn seeds from Iowa farm fields so they could be smuggled to a Chinese agriculture conglomerate.”

Whilst the case might be slightly laughable, as according to the New York Times, the defendant was caught, “when a manager at a DuPont research farm in east-central Iowa noticed a man on his knees, digging up the field. When confronted, the man, Mo Hailong, who was with his colleague Wang Lei, appeared flushed. Mr. Mo told the manager that he worked for the University of Iowa and was travelling to a conference nearby. When the manager paused to answer his cellphone, the two men sped off in a car, racing through a ditch to get away.”

While the attempt might seem slightly amateurish, with the defendants concealing, “stolen seeds in, among other things, microwave popcorn boxes and napkins from Subway restaurants.” the fact is that the value of the theft is significant. A recent report by the McKinsey consultancy, valued the agricultural industry at $5 trillion dollars a year, and with numbers that big, even the smallest part of the business is life changing money for individuals.

Evidently, the temptation to break the law is great, even for established companies. As in the Iowa case it was established, “[after] about a year of F.B.I. surveillance of Mr. Mo and his associates [that] all but one of them worked for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group or its subsidiary Kings Nower Seed.”

Worse still, is that this case is not an isolated incident, with Robert Anderson Jr., assistant director of counterintelligence at the F.B.I. explaining that, “Agriculture [industrial espionage] is an emerging trend that we’re seeing.” Adding that, until two years ago, “the majority of the countries and hostile intelligence services within those countries were stealing other stuff.”

Such is the power of a trade secret in modern agribusiness, that attempts to steal it are replacing efforts to learn military secrets.

Possibly, this is part of what geo-political experts call ‘food security’, and the ability of nations to feed their growing populations, maybe it is just unscrupulous businessmen taking a short cut to profit. But if the trend for industrial espionage in the agricultural industry continues, then agrichemical companies should take much greater care of their data.

In the future, attempts to steal confidential information may not just be a case of bad luck, but instead will be something that is predictable and certain to happen at some time in a company’s lifespan. When it comes to agribusiness data, industrial espionage should leave you neither shaken nor stirred, but should simply be a case of, ‘We’ve been expecting you Mr. Bond.’



Photo credit: Ted Genoways