For many of us, the idea of industrial espionage conjures up secreted factory blueprints, copied chemical formulas, and hacked computer systems. It calls to mind the high tech and highly trained, the stuff of spy novels and James Bond films. It does not evoke Iowa cornfields—at least, no more than a few scattered ears of corn missed by a mechanical harvester might suggest vulnerable trade secrets.
Yet some seeds are a source of intense competition and controversy, and they feature prominently among the many purported and confirmed objects of economic theft. In the United States, seed companies have complained about having their products “stolen” by competitors since the very earliest days of commercial breeding and industrial seed production. Before governments began allowing patents on plants, it was easy—and legal—to reproduce and profit from others’ plant varieties simply by harvesting and selling their seeds. Breeders developed various strategies for preventing this, from special pricing to contracts to trademarks to producing F1 (first-generation) hybrids, but it was not until the advent of state-enforced protections on a wide range of agricultural crops in the 1970s that selling someone else’s seeds became a crime.
In 2016, the conviction of a Florida physicist on charges of conspiring to steal trade secrets confirmed that seed theft had also become, at least to those who influence U.S. federal policies and procedures, a national security threat. The scientist, Mo Hailong (also known as Robert Mo), pled guilty to having assisted a Chinese company acquire corn seed lines owned by the transnational seed behemoths Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.
The journalist and former Science correspondent Mara Hvistendahl explores the history of Mo’s strange and, ultimately, sad career as an industrial operative in her third book, The Scientist and the Spy. Although Mo could be either the scientist or the spy alluded to in the title, he is hardly the real subject of the book. Hvistendahl convincingly casts Mo as a “pawn in an international struggle” between China and the United States.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) spared little expense in developing a case against Mo. A 2-year period saw 73 agents devote time to the effort, 17,000 emails intercepted, hundreds of hours of audio recorded and transcribed, and more. All of this was done to defend the intellectual property of two extremely profitable, world-leading agribusinesses—“American industry”—against the haphazardly organized incursions of an expanding Beijing-based animal feed corporation that did not even have the expertise in place to efficiently exploit stolen seeds—“unfair foreign competition.”
To understand why the U.S. government devotes a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars to investigate and litigate on behalf of a company such as Monsanto—which is itself not only in possession of an aggressive legal division but also, at the time of Mo’s activities, was under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for potential violation of antitrust law—one really needs to appreciate global politics.
Hvistendahl considers factors that range from the FBI’s post–Cold War refashioning, which contributed to a new narrative of industrial espionage as a national security threat, to the effects that greater meat consumption in China have had on demand for feed corn and, therefore, seed corn. The consolidation of agribusiness features prominently as well, a factor that both explains, and is explained by, the dogged defense of patents on corn and other crop varieties described above.
If there is a subplot that makes this book essential reading, especially for those working in the sciences today, it is Hvistendahl’s documentation of the disturbing effects that the too-vigorous pursuit of industrial spies has had on Chinese scientists and engineers in the United States. For nearly two decades, the FBI and other U.S. agencies have expounded an account of China’s espionage strategy in which the Chinese government is said to rely on “a dispersed network of nontraditional collectors” rather than professional agents. This vision of a “‘human wave’ of students, scientists, and engineers…who gather intelligence ad hoc” wrongly implicates all ethnic Chinese working in the United States as potential spies for the Communist Party.
Hvistendahl provides evidence that this characterization, which evokes old racist fears of “the yellow peril,” not only is fundamentally inaccurate with respect to China’s state-led spy operations but also produces racially motivated suspicion, hostility, and harm. Wrongful investigations have ruined careers and lives.
Is American industry really at risk? Or is it values such as tolerance, openness, and justice that are truly in danger? Hvistendahl’s foray through cornfields and courtrooms eschews easy answers to these questions, yet her vivid observations and incisive analyses will leave readers well equipped to arrive at their own conclusions.
About the author
The reviewer is at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3RH, UK, and is the author of Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2016).