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China Steals Seed Technology

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Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) stated, “People in Washington and Silicon Valley are overlooking the threat of Chinese agricultural technology theft because they think that food grows in a grocery store.”

In a Washington, D.C, newspaper article, Cotton claimed only President Trump is attempting to stop China from stealing intellectual property. He is particularly concerned about China’s espionage tactics in relationship to farm crops and seeds.

It appears many of agriculture’s commodity organizations are only concerned about exporting more product to China and seldom ever support Trump in his efforts to stop the stealing of intellectual property. The news media focuses on national security matters and Silicon Valley.

Cotton, who was born and raised on a cattle farm in Arkansas, said China is not capable of feeding itself. He claims this is why “…it tries to steal modern techniques and strategies of growing crops from places like Arkansas.” Cotton believes China’s espionage tactics are focused in-particular on crops and agriculture. Even FBI Director Christopher Wray states, “Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder, at our expense.”
A recent article by Jack DeWitt published on Oct. 17, 2019, raised the question of whether it is too late to stop China from stealing agriculture technology. He recites the familiar story of a 2014 case that exposed a group of Chinese nationals attempting to steal seeds by digging up freshly planted corn seed. He noted that only one Chinese person was arrested and the other six fled to China. However, it was noted this Beijing company “… had been stealing U.S. seeds since 2007.”

As we know, China bought the Swiss company Syngenta through a state-owned company – Chemchina. DeWitt notes by this one move China “….gained access to one of the world’s largest portfolios of patented seeds and agricultural crop protection products.“ DeWitt also noted in his article that President Xi Jinping has stated he would like to “…speed up the innovation and application of biotechnology breeding in agriculture.”

The FBI has called agricultural economic espionage “a growing threat.” Another example of stealing agricultural technology involves rice, which concerns Cotton. Ventria Bioscience, a Kansas company, has developed a genetically engineered rice. The intellectual property included in the engineered rice is to grow human proteins for medical uses. Ventria Bioscience, according to one report, invested approximately $85 million in developing the engineered rice. The company expected the potential from this rice to be approximately a billion dollars a year. China, through one of its contacts, conspired to steal the company’s trade secret and the rice was found in their luggage. This case occurred in 2013. This case and Iowa are cases which have given rise to criminal prosecution.

These cases are being prosecuted under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. It is this kind of stealing of seed technology the Trump administration is attempting to protect American agriculture from. It should be no surprise that China is interested in technology related to agriculture. There is simply no way any entity in agriculture can dispute the value created by seed research and technology.

What is a surprise is that leaders in agriculture are not vocal in supporting Trump’s efforts to improve the trade relationships between China and the United States. Given that agriculture is a large industry in virtually every state, it is critical that technology developed for farmers is not stolen by China. Agriculture is just as much a national security issue as computer and military technology.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the November 12, 2019 edition of the online Farm Futures.
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