Does protecting America’s lucrative genetically modified seed corn industry warrant the use of national security laws intended to fight terrorists and government spies?
The FBI says yes, and it has invoked the broader powers afforded by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to surreptitiously gather evidence against two Chinese siblings accused of plotting to steal patented seed from Iowa cornfields, according to court records.
Stealing hybrid seeds enhanced with traits such as drought resistance doesn’t pose the same immediate threat as a suicide bomber, but the FBI treats economic espionage and similar trade secret theft as dangerous threats to national security.
“It’s people’s lives,” said Christopher Burgess, CEO of security consulting firm Prevendra and a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. “It’s our livelihood. It’s why we feed so much of the world is because we invest in research and development.”
But defense attorneys argue the government tactics constitute an unprecedented, dangerous overreach on a case that is nothing more than a trade secret dispute.
The debate is emerging in the Iowa case against Mo Hailong and Mo Yun, siblings accused in a plot to steal patented seeds from companies including DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto. The plot was hatched so seeds could be smuggled back to China and counterfeited by a major private Chinese agriculture company called the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, according to prosecutors.
Claims that DBN Group is completely free from Chinese government influence are misleading, said Fred Gale, a senior economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The company’s website emphasizes support for the Communist Party of China’s goals to boost the country’s seed industry, Gale said. In 2012, the communist party made strengthening Chinese seed companies a top priority for the country’s rural economy, he said.
Also in 2012, the company received government support for a corn-focused genetic engineering project.
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