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Corn Wars

The farm-by-farm fight between China and the United States to dominate the global food supply

Brian Stauffer

On September 30, 2012, agents from the FBI contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with an urgent request. They wanted bags from two passengers on an outbound flight to Beijing pulled for immediate inspection. The passengers didn’t track as dangerous criminals: Li Shaoming, president of Beijing Kings Nower Seed Science & Technology, a large Chinese agricultural company that develops corn, rice, cotton, and canola seeds, and Ye Jian, the company’s crop research manager.

In Li’s luggage, agents found two large Pop Weaver microwave popcorn boxes. Buried under the bags of unpopped snack kernels were roughly 300 tiny manila envelopes, all cryptically numbered—2155, 2403, 20362. Inside each envelope was a single corn seed. In Ye’s luggage, agents found more corn seeds hidden amid his clothes, each one individually wrapped in napkins from a Subway restaurant. Customs officers were dispatched to the gate area for the Beijing flight, where they found the two men and conducted body searches. Still more corn seeds, also folded into napkins, were discovered in Ye’s pockets.

Meanwhile, at a different gate, Wang Hongwei, another Chinese national believed to be in the employ of Kings Nower (agents never learned if he worked for the company or was related to someone who did), boarded a separate flight for Burlington, Vermont, where he had a car waiting for him to drive to Canada. FBI agents were there to follow him—though Wang, after leaving the airport parking garage, made a series of abrupt turns and managed to give his surveillance team the slip. It didn’t matter. Border patrol officers were waiting when Wang pulled up to the Highgate Springs port of entry along the U.S.-Canadian border. He was selected out for a search, which turned up 44 bags of corn seeds under his seat and in his suitcases, as well as a notebook filled with GPS coordinates and a digital camera containing hundreds of pictures of cornfields. Questioned by agents, Wang would say only that he had purchased the seeds from a man named Mo Hailong, the director of international business at the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group (DBN Group), the parent company of Kings Nower Seed.

Not wanting to alert Mo, agents allowed all three men to leave the country, but their corn seeds were confiscated. Special Agent Mark E. Betten, a 16-year veteran of the FBI specializing in the investigation of intellectual property theft, had the seeds sent to an independent bio-diagnostic testing laboratory, which confirmed that they were proprietary, genetically modified hybrids. Eventually, their genetic sequencing was matched to seeds under development by Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, and LG Seeds, which, including LG’s parent company, Groupe Limagrain, comprise three of the four largest seed companies in the world. The GPS coordinates were found to correspond with farms in Iowa and Illinois, where those companies were testing the performance of new hybrids.

In December 2013, after collecting this evidence, U.S. marshals arrived at Mo’s home in Boca Raton, Florida. He was taken into custody and extradited to Iowa, where he has been under house arrest in Des Moines ever since. The FBI also brought charges against five alleged co-conspirators, all Chinese, who remain at large, including the three men stopped by customs agents, and eventually against Mo’s sister, Mo Yun, as well. Mo and his sister are scheduled to stand trial before a federal court in Iowa in September on charges of conspiracy to steal trade secrets. If convicted, they face up to ten years in prison and a $5 million fine.

This may seem like a lot of post-September 11 cloak-and-dagger for a few corn seeds, but the U.S. government believes that something much larger is going on. This theft, they argue, stems from an undeniable and dangerous fact: Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.

Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty
Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg / Getty

If China hopes to feed (and pacify) its growing population while also loosening the very real stranglehold that America has on its national food supply, its farmers have to start producing a lot more corn—not just enough to meet their domestic demand in good years but enough to maintain a stockpile to offset their global market impact during bad ones. For decades, China has increased corn yields by putting more acres into production, but they’re running out of arable land, and the USDA now estimates that Chinese corn consumption will rise by 41 percent by 2023, far outpacing production increases. The only tenable way for China to meet its own demand, then, is by planting high-performance hybrids, which can single-handedly double or potentially even triple per-acre corn production. Chinese scientists haven’t developed a significant corn hybrid in years. But Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, the two American seed giants, have produced so many successful hybrids that they now control 45 percent of all the seed sold in the world.

The Department of Justice maintains that China is quietly permitting and even encouraging companies to steal American agricultural secrets right out of the ground. Acquiring the technology behind these next-generation hybrids could save companies like DBN Group—and the country—as much as a decade, and many millions of dollars, in research. And, plant geneticists familiar with the case told me, the very fact that Kings Nower Seed has brought to market—and intended to bring more—products with stolen genetics hints that the Chinese government is complicit. The theft is not hard to detect or prove; the only way that DBN Group could hope to get away with this scheme is if China were pushing such spying as a matter of policy.

In fact, a 2011 report prepared by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which advises the president on intelligence matters related to national security, listed “agricultural technology” among the targets “likely to be of greatest interest” to spies from Russia and China. “Surging prices for food,” the report stated, “may increase the value of and interest in collecting U.S. technologies related to crop production, such as genetic engineering, improved seeds, and fertilizer.” Since that report, the Department of Justice has cracked down, successfully prosecuting Chinese national Kexue Huang for stealing secrets related to organic fertilizer production and an unidentified “new food product” while he was employed at both Dow AgroSciences and Cargill, as well as Weiqiang Zhang, for theft of genetically engineered rice seeds from Colorado-based Ventria Bioscience.

What makes the case against Mo Hailong stand out is that the FBI openly acknowledges that each step of its operation, each escalation of surveillance, was approved by a federal judge under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires that the investigating agency provide evidence that wiretapping is “necessary, or relevant, to the ability of the United States to protect against foreign threats to national security, such as attack, sabotage, terrorism, or clandestine intelligence activities.” The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.

This may, at first glance, appear melodramatic—like Homeland in the heartland—but it is striking that the Department of Justice did not invoke FISA measures (at least not openly) in carrying out similar investigations into Dongfan Chung, a former Boeing engineer who stole trade secrets related to the Delta IV rocket and the Air Force’s C-17 aircraft, or Qing Li, who conspired to procure 30 military accelerometers, which, according to the government, “have applications in smart bombs, missiles, and calibrating g-forces of nuclear explosions.” When asked about the extraordinary use of FISA in this case, Nick Klinefeldt, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, who is prosecuting Mo, chose his words carefully. “The agriculture industry is important,” he said. “It’s important not just to the state of Iowa but to the United States.” In announcing the charges against Mo last July, Thomas R. Metz, special agent in charge of the Omaha Division of the FBI, went still further, saying that “identifying and deterring those focused on stealing trade secrets, propriety [sic] and confidential information, or national security information is the number two priority for the FBI, second only to terrorism.”

Think about that: The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI now contend, in effect, that the theft of genetically modified corn technology is as credible a threat to national security as the spread to nation-states of the technology necessary to deliver and detonate nuclear warheads. Disturbingly, they may be right. As the global population continues to climb and climate change makes arable soil and water for irrigation ever more scarce, the world’s next superpower will be determined not just by which country has the most military might but also, and more importantly, by its mastery of the technology required to produce large quantities of food.

The bureau’s investigation of Mo Hailong began only after Mo made a stunning blunder. It was early May 2011, and Mo and Wang Lei, vice chairman of Kings Nower Seed at the time, were driving country roads in Tama County, Iowa, allegedly searching for a DuPont Pioneer test field. But apparently uncertain if he was in the right place or unsure of what kind of seed DuPont Pioneer was testing, Mo had Wang pull to the edge of a field, so they could question a farmer in the midst of spring planting. Mo and Wang told the farmer they had been attending an international agricultural conference at Iowa State and wanted to see someone planting a real cornfield. The farmer was dubious. Ames was nearly an hour away with nothing but expanses of cornfields in between, all at the peak of planting season. How had these two men chanced upon his field on the very day that he happened to be planting an experimental and top-secret seed under development by DuPont Pioneer?

The next day, a DuPont Pioneer field manager spotted the same car. He watched Mo scramble up the ditch bank, and then kneel down in the dirt and begin digging corn seeds out of the ground. When confronted by the field manager, Mo grew flustered and red-faced. He now claimed to be a researcher from the University of Iowa—not Iowa State—on his way to a conference. But before the field manager could question him further, Mo fled. He jumped into the waiting car, and Wang took off, swerving through the grassy ditch before fishtailing onto the gravel road and speeding away.

The genetic profile of the blue DuPont Pioneer inbred corn seed, one variety stolen by Mo Hailong in Tama, Iowa, is a closely guarded secret. Farmers planting them are forbidden from keeping the seeds or collecting kernels from the ears they produce, and must sign nondisclosure forms covering the details of their company-mandated planting plans.
Mary Anne Andrei

A few weeks later, agents from the Iowa office of the FBI sat down with DuPont Pioneer representatives for a standing meeting (which itself says something about the importance our law enforcement officials place on our corn) at their corporate headquarters in Johnston, Iowa, a northern suburb of Des Moines. A DuPont Pioneer executive mentioned the incident and explained that the company enters into exclusive contracts with farmers to grow proprietary and often genetically engineered seeds. The exact genetic sequence of successful seeds is a tightly held secret, worth many millions of dollars. The DuPont Pioneer field manager had written down the license plate number and handed it over to company security. Multinational food conglomerates like DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto have sizable security forces and highly efficient investigatory networks. They traced the plates back to a rental car company at the Kansas City airport. Representatives there said the car had been rented by Mo Hailong.

According to court documents, an unnamed vice president and general manager from DuPont Pioneer’s Chinese subsidiary told the FBI he already had reason to believe that Kings Nower Seed was somehow stealing the company’s experimental seeds in order to raise clones for sale to Chinese farmers. DuPont Pioneer had recently discovered that one of DBN Group’s best-selling corn seed products in China shared genetic sequencing with a male parent line that the company had genetically engineered. The executive had confronted a DBN Group executive, sarcastically congratulating him on the success of their product. The Chinese executive had allegedly cracked a knowing smile and nodded, which the DuPont executive had taken as a tacit admission. The FBI agreed to investigate.

Four months later, while the FBI was still looking into the Tama incident, a call came into the sheriff’s office in Polk County, Iowa, with a report of three Asian males walking around a cornfield in Bondurant, just outside of Des Moines. Despite the strangeness of such a call, the responding deputy hurried to the field, approached the men, and took down their names: Mo Hailong Robert (Mo occasionally used the alias Robert Mo), Wang Lei, and Li Shaoming, the CEO of Kings Nower Seed. The men acknowledged that they were Chinese seed growers but claimed they were there to offer advice to the owner of the farm. When the FBI learned of the report—and recognized Mo’s name—they dispatched an agent from the Omaha field office to interview the farmer. He had never heard of the three men, much less sought their advice. He told the agent he didn’t even know what kind of corn he was growing, other than to say he was under contract to Monsanto. Soon after, a Monsanto field representative confirmed that this, too, was a test site for a new parent seed the company had under development.

With an emerging picture of what Mo was up to, the FBI began tracking his movements—and soon discovered that he and Wang were intending to travel together to Des Moines for events held in connection with the World Food Prize. The morning after their arrival, on February 15, 2012, the security team at DuPont Pioneer called the FBI to report “they were confident” (in the words of the subsequent report) that Mo, using an alias and fake corporate affiliation, had joined a delegation visiting their headquarters. The FBI collected the surveillance video of the tour inside DuPont Pioneer’s research lab and also identified Mo on corresponding security footage from the delegation’s tour of a Monsanto research facility in Ankeny later in the day. That night, agents tracked Mo to a state dinner hosted by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in honor of Xi Jinping, then the vice president of China and now the president. The next day, Mo and Wang went together to a sports bar near the hotel where they were staying in the Des Moines suburbs. They met up with Xaoming Bao, a Chinese seed executive and former DuPont Pioneer employee whose wife was employed by the company as a corn-genetics researcher.

FBI investigators could now demonstrate that Mo had, on two separate occasions, sought to obtain experimental seeds by collecting them from secret test sites, and furthermore, it appeared he had gained the information about how to find those locations by working with corporate insiders. The FBI also discovered that while he was in Iowa, Mo had shipped hundreds of pounds of packages from a West Des Moines UPS location to his home in Boca Raton. The contents listed on the tracking sheet: “corn samples.”

Drought-resistant corn hybrids on display at a DuPont Pioneer sales center near Cairo, Nebraska.
Mary Anne Andrei

The theft of high-performing corn seeds from a competitor’s fields is as old as the cultivation of corn. “They say that a good plant breeder always had lots of pockets,” said Donald J. Lee, a professor and plant geneticist in the department of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “And when he would go visit his neighbor’s plant breeding fields, they always came back full.” Until recently, farmers were their own seed providers. Lee told me his grandfather, a farmer in Iowa a century ago, would select ears from each harvest to provide the seed for planting the next year. He recorded the quality of his yield, slowly identifying a set of seed characteristics that seemed to produce the best crop. In those days, it was not unusual for family and friends to share seed stock. “Maybe a neighbor would say, ‘Hey, I really did good with this seed that I got from a cousin in eastern Iowa. You should try a little of this,’” Lee said. “But they were all open-pollinated populations, so those seeds were not genetically identical. In fact, probably every seed was genetically distinct.”

So much genetic variability meant that farmers like Lee’s grandfather would cross two varieties and get large, robust ears one year, only to find that the same two varieties produced scraggly cobs with missing kernels and dead tips the next. “So if you take a look at the historic yields of corn in Iowa and Nebraska during the teens, the twenties, the thirties—it’s flat,” he said.

That all changed with the arrival of Henry A. Wallace, the founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred Seeds, who Lee described as “the Bill Gates of the seed industry.” Wallace, the son of the longtime president of the Cornbelt Meat Producers, first encountered the problem of genetic variation while studying corn breeding at Iowa State Agricultural College. Rediscovering Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking research on pea pods, Wallace had the key insight that the only solution to producing hearty corn hybrids was to first create genetically pure inbred varieties that could be used as “parents” year after year. Wallace initially worried that such an approach “was probably impractical because of the difficulty of doing the hand-pollinating work,” but he was won over by a paper published in 1918 by Donald Jones, a chemist at the Connecticut Agricultural Station’s experimental farm. Jones had successfully inbred two separate varieties of corn and then crossed them to produce a durable, high-performing hybrid. Wallace recognized that this was the key to creating seed corn with consistently higher yields, but the old problem remained: Producing these hybrids would be far too complex for the average farmer to undertake alone.

Wallace began to envision an organized way of breeding and distributing high-performing corn seed to farmers across the Midwest. A man of unusual commitment to the common good, he wrote a friend that he did not consider himself a corn breeder but rather “a searcher for methods of bringing the ‘inner light’ to outward manifestation.” So Wallace at first conceived of a nonprofit organization, potentially run with government cooperation and even public funding. In 1921, his father, Henry C. Wallace, was appointed secretary of agriculture and might have helped spearhead such an effort. But after his father died unexpectedly at age 58 and Calvin Coolidge settled into the laissez-faire years of his presidency, Wallace saw little chance of an ambitious national program gaining traction. He decided instead, in May 1926, to start the Hi-Bred Corn Company—the world’s first hybrid seed producer.

To interest farmers, Roswell Garst, Wallace’s lead salesman, who later became a major seed producer in his own right, went from one farm to the next, across 16 counties in western Iowa, giving away enough eight-pound sample bags of Hi-Bred seeds for farmers to plant half their fields. Whatever additional yield the hybrid corn produced, Pioneer would split fifty-fifty with the farmer. After several years, farmers realized that they would see greater profits by simply buying the bags of seeds, instead of sharing the surplus yield with the company.

Those shared harvests produced something even more valuable than profit for the young company: information about how the seeds performed under different growing conditions. Wallace directed a sizable chunk of his revenue back into research, hiring a team of new corn breeders to devise still more hybrids. In the early 1930s, Perry Collins, one of Wallace’s researchers, developed Hybrid 307—the first corn specifically developed and marketed for drought-resistance, hitting seed dealerships just as the country spiraled into the Dust Bowl. And when Wallace was, like his father, appointed secretary of agriculture, by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, he finally had the resources to nationally evangelize for hybrid seed, which he believed had the potential to rescue the nation from the Great Depression.

The transformation that followed was staggering. When Wallace joined Roosevelt’s cabinet, less than 1 percent of America’s corn came from hybrid seeds. A decade later, more than three-quarters of all corn was grown from hybrids—nearly doubling the national per-acre yield over the next 20 years. To keep this record output from depressing corn prices, Wallace created the “ever-normal granary,” under which the federal government would establish a federal grain reserve. In years of high production, the Department of Agriculture would buy corn and store it to keep prices up. In years of crop loss, the government would release the reserve to keep prices down. Wallace’s plan was hugely popular, stabilizing American food prices—and winning him a spot as FDR’s running mate in 1940.

But Wallace’s remarkable Hi-Bred Corn had one significant drawback: It consumed far more nitrogen compounds from the soil than ordinary corn—more, in fact, than almost any other crop. During the war years, the government solved the problem by simply putting more acres into production, but after World War II, the Department of Agriculture found a different solution. Giant chemical manufacturers, like DuPont and Monsanto, had secured wartime defense contracts to produce ammonia nitrate and anhydrous ammonia to make bombs and other munitions. They had developed an herbicide known as 2,4-D as a potential destroyer of German crops and manufactured the insecticide DDT to prevent the spread of typhus-carrying lice among GIs. As soon as the war was over, DuPont turned to marketing those same chemicals for lawn and garden use as fertilizer, weed killer, and DuPont 5% DDT Insect Spray. Company advertisements from the period touted their products as “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry.” But gardens were just the tip of the iceberg. DuPont, along with other giant chemical manufacturers like Dow and Monsanto, teamed up with the grain cartels, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, to lobby for congressional support for producing these compounds as large-scale agri-chemicals.

In 1953, the industry found its greatest ally, when Ezra Taft Benson took over as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture. (Wallace, by then, had retired from public life. He was briefly the editor of the New Republic before making a failed bid for the presidency in 1948.) Benson, a high-ranking member of the Mormon Church and a fanatical Red Scare Republican, immediately informed Eisenhower that he was philosophically opposed to the government price supports developed by Wallace, because, to his mind, they were tantamount to socialism. He publicly referred to small farmers as “irresponsible feeders at the public trough.”

Foreshadowing today’s aggressive, pro-corporate agricultural policies, Benson argued that the only way to outcompete the collective farms of the Soviet Union and Red China was to use our superior corn and chemical technology to the fullest. The United States could, if it chose, overproduce corn to drive down international prices, and it could use the surplus as a tool of diplomatic leverage in the form of foreign aid. Instead of guns, the United States began to give our allies grain—transforming, for the first time, a food product into a weapon in the national arsenal. The only problem was that by effectively militarizing American agriculture, Benson made agri-tech a target for foreign spying.

In April 2012, Mo flew from his home in Florida to O’Hare International Airport and rented a car. An FBI surveillance team followed him as he drove along back roads through rural Illinois and northern Indiana. After about a week of this, Mo stopped one day at a farm near Monee, Illinois, advertising DuPont Pioneer seeds for sale. The farmer there later told the FBI that Mo had asked about what types of corn and soybeans he could buy, explaining that he had purchased 40 acres nearby and was planning to plant the property. The surveillance team followed Mo to a farm about 15 minutes west of Monee, where, a review of property records soon revealed, Kings Nower Seed had purchased a parcel for $600,000 only the month before.

As agents watched Mo crisscross the Midwest, stopping at seed stores to inquire about different products, they began to suspect that he planned to plant the Illinois acreage by hand. Donald J. Lee, the University of Nebraska professor, compares stealing parent seeds to obtaining programming code without knowing what application it is intended for or what operating system it’s meant to run on. Likewise, knowing the genetic structure of a corn seed is just one part of the problem. “You don’t know the importance of those genes, unless you have yield data,” said Lee. “When did the plant mature? What’s its development profile? How did it respond to such-and-such disease?” This is what Mo appeared to be doing: setting up his own covert test farm, one that he could oversee personally.

FBI surveillance teams followed Mo to Crossroads Ag, a DuPont Pioneer seed dealer in Dallas Center, Iowa, and observed him loading bags of seeds into his trunk. When investigators questioned the owner, he said Mo paid in cash—more than $1,500—for six bags of Pioneer Hi-Bred corn seeds. He said Mo had been purchasing seed there for two years, always asking for DuPont Pioneer’s “latest products,” but this year he had arrived with a detailed list. The owner had told Mo that he wasn’t supposed to sell him some of the specific products he was asking for, unless he had a contract agreement with DuPont Pioneer, which the owner knew he didn’t. The next day, FBI surveillance watched Mo repeat the process, buying six bags of DeKalb brand seed corn, a Monsanto product, at MFA Agri Services in Pattonsburg, Missouri.

Finally, the team followed Mo back to Adel, Iowa, where Mo unloaded some of the seed bags at a storage facility before driving on to the farm in Illinois where the remaining bags were unloaded and, the FBI believes, seeds may have been planted. About one out of every 200 seeds in a bag of hybrid corn seed is a parent, which can be identified by planting the bag and then collecting kernels from whichever plants look different from the rest. Investigators believe Mo may have been collecting some parent seeds this way. Later, when Mo and two DBN Group employees attempted to FedEx the remaining corn seeds to an associate in Hong Kong, the FBI intercepted the packages and conducted a search of the five boxes. Each contained eight or nine gallon-sized baggies filled with seed corn, along with a handwritten numerical code identifying each hybrid.

The FBI has not revealed exactly when they applied to a FISA court for more broad-ranging investigatory powers, but the FBI’s court filings show that their information on Mo and his associates became much more detailed after meetings with DuPont Pioneer executives over the summer. Top executives told agents that “the loss of an inbred line of seed would result in losing approximately five to eight years of research and a minimum of $30 to $40 million dollars, potentially much more.” After that, the FBI tapped the men’s mobile phones and tracked Mo’s bank records. They collected their email from Yahoo, Google, and Hotmail, corporate documents from DropBox, and thousands of files from Mo’s Apple iCloud account. The FBI used Mo’s mobile phone to track his movements, bugged his rental cars to eavesdrop on his conversations, and installed a video camera outside the storage unit in Adel.

To exercise such investigatory power, the FBI had to argue that Mo was an “agent of a foreign power”—or, in other words, to persuade a judge that Mo might be acting on behalf not just of DBN Group but at the direction of the People’s Republic of China. With that, the FBI had the authority to treat Mo as if he were the leader of a state-sponsored Chinese spy ring. (Klinefeldt, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, was evasive about whether that suspicion proved substantive. “When you start an investigation,” he said, “you don’t know exactly where it will lead.”)

FBI investigators soon got the explicit evidence they needed to make arrests. Over a listening device installed in an Enterprise rental car, the surveillance team recorded a bizarre and inept conversation between two of Mo’s associates from DBN Group, Lin Yong and Ye Jian. In the translated transcript, submitted as part of the government’s case, the two men are consumed by worry that they are being followed and about the charges they could face if caught. So, as they drive around rural Illinois looking for DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto test fields from which to steal, they begin making a list of the crimes they have committed. After some back and forth, they come up with trespassing for every time they have slipped onto private property, larceny for the seeds and ears they have been stealing from the fields, and multiple violations of intellectual property protections.

“These are actually very serious offenses,” Lin says.

“They could treat us as spies!” Ye interjects.

Lin, exasperated, responds: “That is what we’ve been doing!”

Soon after, with the harvest season nearly complete, Mo seems to have decided it was time to send to China what corn he and his associates had collected. The group drove back to the secret Illinois farm and began discussing how they would divvy up the seeds. Some would go into checked bags bound for Beijing, others would be carried to a car and driven across the border from Vermont into Canada, and some would go with Mo back to Florida, where he would ship them to China. With tickets booked for departure the following morning, the five men readied their caches of seeds—Li deciding to stash his under packets of Pop Weaver microwave popcorn. The whole group then piled into a white minivan and drove into Monee to eat at the local Subway. On their way out, one of the men, perhaps Ye, must have stuffed his pockets full of napkins.

When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States at President Eisenhower’s invitation in 1959, he specifically requested to see only one man: Roswell Garst, the former Pioneer seed salesman for Henry A. Wallace, who was then head of Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company. Khrushchev had met Garst once before, when he visited the Soviet Union, and had become obsessed by the potential of hybrid corn. Khrushchev and his wife spent a day at Garst’s farm near Coon Rapids, Iowa. In his memoirs, Khrushchev later wrote, “Garst gave me an entire lecture on agriculture,” in which he earnestly explained that American farmers had stopped worrying about crop rotation. “Science today considers that approach outdated. And I think so, too,” Garst told the Soviet leader. In past years, planting the same crop repeatedly would have attracted pests and depleted the soil of nitrogen. “Now there is no such problem. We have herbicides and other such chemical substances that make it possible to combat pests,” Garst said. And there was no longer any need to plant clover or alfalfa to accumulate nitrogen. “It is more profitable for me to buy nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, in mix form, and add this fertilizer.”

On that same official visit, Ezra Taft Benson led Khrushchev on a tour of the U.S. Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. Benson, in his official remarks, said that there was a “constant give-and-take of information between government scientists and those in private industry,” adding that “we are all working together within the framework of our capitalistic free-enterprise society to benefit our farmers, all our citizens, and people throughout the world.” He listed hybrid corn first among the achievements of such cooperative efforts and introduced white-coated lab researchers who extolled the virtues of 2,4-D and chemical fertilizers. Khrushchev was unimpressed by a visit he made to a farm owned by President Eisenhower, dismissing it as “not on a scale such as we have at our collective farms and state farms.” Benson later remembered that Khrushchev bragged, “We won’t have to fight you. We’ll so weaken your economy until you fall like overripe fruit into our hands.” Benson vowed that American farms would outproduce the Soviets through superior chemistry.

By the end of the Eisenhower era, however, environmentalists began to raise concerns about the hundreds of commercial herbicides and pesticides being applied to American crops in quantities totaling hundreds of millions of pounds. Benson admonished doubters that “abandoning the use of chemicals on farms and in the food industry would result in an immediate decline in the quantity and overall quality of our food supply and cause a rapid rise in food prices paid by the consumer.” Even when Rachel Carson documented connections between DDT and 2,4-D and elevated incidence rates of rare forms of cancer in Silent Spring, Benson remained unmoved. He is said to have written to Eisenhower wondering “why a spinster with no children was so concerned with genetics,” and then, as if to answer his own question, offered that Carson was “probably a Communist.” (The Eisenhower Presidential Library, for what it’s worth, contains no record of this letter.)

Joseph Scherschel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
Henry A. Wallace’s scientific breakthroughs with cross-breeding corn varieties revolutionized agriculture in the United States. Wallace, at bottom, was an idealist who believed hybridized corn would feed the world.
Jerry Cooke / Pix Inc. / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

Benson’s war on the “socialist” price supports and farm aid programs instituted by Henry A. Wallace stalled out during the liberal-minded 1960s. But at the advent of the new decade, President Richard Nixon appointed Earl Butz, Benson’s former assistant, to become the new secretary of agriculture. Butz had grown up on a farm in Indiana and spent 30 years teaching agricultural economics at Purdue before becoming dean of the university’s College of Agriculture. Many small farmers hated him, because he had been such a vocal advocate for turning family farming into big business during the Eisenhower administration. His refrain for those families, famously, was: “Get big or get out.”

Almost as soon as Butz won approval from Congress, he canceled payments for fallow land and urged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow,” promising to use the emerging global economy to buttress against low prices. If our supply threatened futures, we would simply go to the world market and use our size and economic might to meet the demand and forge foreign dependence on American food in the bargain. We would defeat the Communists by making them dependent on us to feed themselves. In January 1972, Butz sold what amounted to our entire grain reserve to the Soviets. The following month, Nixon went to China and brokered a deal with Chairman Mao Zedong, allowing the importation of American corn and securing contracts for American companies to build 13 of the world’s largest ammonia-processing plants for producing fertilizer on Chinese soil.

America’s Communist foes regarded these moves as an agreement not to wage war through food. But Butz discussed these moves in terms of “agri-power,” and stated it plainly: “Food is a weapon.” To open a new front in the conflict, he supported maintaining American food superiority through yet another innovation: bioengineering feed, such as corn and soybeans. Through the miracle of science, the United States would not only produce more crops than our rivals; we would produce better crops. By 1972, scientists had already developed the ability to cut and splice protein strands in the DNA sequences of bacteria. If they could do the same with plant cells, then they could chemically insert resistance to weeds and insects. Less than five years later, a team from the University of Washington discovered that a bacterium that causes tumorlike growths on plants did so by inserting its own DNA into the cell nuclei of its host plant. What they had discovered was essentially a natural form of gene splicing. By the 1980s, researchers had devised techniques for removing the bacteria genes and inserting desirable DNA sequences.

The U.S. government recognized this as technology the Soviets and Chinese could not match. Monsanto was also quick to see the market opportunity. The company had grown with the production of 2,4-D and its descendant 2,4,5-T, which were then combined to produce Agent Orange to defoliate forest cover during the Vietnam War. In 1970, in an effort to come up with an even stronger plant killer, Monsanto chemist John E. Franz hit upon an herbicide called glyphosate, which was marketed under the trade name Roundup and had seen unmatched growth in broadleaf weed control in the agricultural industry. The only problem with Roundup: It was such an effective herbicide that farmers had to apply it carefully, spraying only early sprouting weeds, to avoid exterminating their crops.

Monsanto’s engineers set about searching for a gene that would allow crops to survive exposure to Roundup. They found it in the wastewater-treatment plant of one of their own glyphosate production plants in Louisiana, where workers had noticed a range of bacteria thriving despite exposure to Roundup—and one, under lab testing, displayed total immunity to glyphosate pesticides. By 1996, Monsanto had commercially introduced soybeans that had been genetically modified to resist glyphosate—what the company termed “Roundup Ready.”

Next, researchers set to trying to find a genetic-engineering solution to the European corn borer, an insect that inflicted more than $1 billion in losses of corn production in the U.S. and Canada each year. Since the 1960s, endotoxins produced by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common bacteria found in the soil, had been sold as a commercial microbial insecticide to kill moth larvae. If the specific DNA that produced Bt toxins could be isolated and spliced into corn genetic sequences, scientists believed they could create an ear of corn that would be lethal to the European corn borer. Soon, that hurdle had been cleared, and Monsanto began looking for a seed partner to market its pest-resistant corn. If it could marry its genetic modifications with Pioneer’s hybrid seeds, Monsanto believed it would have a corn seed with unmatched yield potential.

In the early 1990s, perhaps too eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of its new GMO crops, Monsanto allowed Pioneer to use its biotech to produce Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn—asking only for small usage fees and no royalties. For less than $40 million, Pioneer suddenly had the technology and the sales muscle to move toward genetically modified feed crops, a growth market worth many billions of dollars. Rather than partner with Monsanto, Pioneer became its greatest competitor, entering into a joint venture with DuPont, called Optimum Quality Grains. In response, Monsanto launched a series of bitter and protracted lawsuits, and eventually, in 1999, Pioneer sold its entire remaining stock to DuPont (thus changing the name to DuPont Pioneer). In 2002, all eleven lawsuits were settled at once—as DuPont Pioneer realized that it had more to gain by paying for Monsanto’s genetics and focusing on capturing the Chinese market.

In the years since, DuPont Pioneer has increased its share of the corn-seed market in China from less than a tenth of a percent to 12 percent. (Monsanto has a 1 percent market share.) DuPont Pioneer has told Chinese officials that they should Americanize their agriculture: consolidate land, plant GMO seed, apply industrial fertilizers, subsidize the sale of planting and harvest equipment. This way, the company argues, China could dramatically increase its per-acre yield. William S. Niebur, who leads DuPont Pioneer’s operations in China, told the Des Moines Register last year that officials have listened to these recommendations with an “open ear.”

Mary Anne Andrei

In March 2015, Mo Hailong’s attorneys filed a motion to suppress all evidence gathered from the secret recordings made of Mo and his associates, arguing that the authorization to gather those materials should never have been granted. In order to legally justify the use of FISA, surveillance must target an “agent of a foreign power,” and the purpose of the surveillance must be to gather “foreign intelligence information.” Mo’s attorneys argue there is no evidence that Mo is an agent of the Chinese government or that his company is backed by China, so for “the first time in the statute’s history (as far as our research reveals), the [U.S.] government used FISA to investigate a trade secret dispute between two privately owned companies.”

When it comes to the Chinese form of capitalism, the line is undeniably murky. The government has taken a strong hand in recent years in encouraging the growth of China’s agricultural sector. In 2013, for example, China’s Shuanghui International entered an overvalue bid to buy Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork. Under questioning by Congress, Smithfield insisted the purchase came without the urging or backing of the Chinese government. But after the purchase received congressional approval, Nathan Halverson at the Center for Investigative Reporting discovered that the Bank of China, the state bank of the Chinese government, had approved the $4 billion loan for Shuanghui to purchase Smithfield in a single day—and in China, Shuanghui has touted the support the government is giving them.

In the wake of that purchase, the Chinese government has been actively consolidating the country’s seed companies, which currently number more than 5,000. This consolidation would centralize research, improving China’s ability to develop its own hybrids to compete with giants like DuPont and Monsanto, and it would also allow China to mimic the field-to-slaughter vertical integration that has given meat producers like Smithfield and Cargill such an advantage in the United States. DBN Group is a notable example of a seed company that is booming thanks to consolidation and government assistance. Founded in 1994 by seed-tech whiz kid Shao Genhuo, DBN Group has recently acquired more than 30 feed operations from the Chinese government, and the company runs China Farmer University jointly with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. By targeting Mo and his sister Mo Yun as the leaders of the spy ring, the FBI may hope to incriminate Shao (who is married to Mo Yun)—and, ultimately, implicate Chinese agriculture ministers. But the U.S. government’s argument that the technology behind Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn constitutes not just trade secrets but national security secrets is a problematic one.

Companies like DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto like to maintain that they are striving only to feed a burgeoning global population. Last year, Niebur, of DuPont Pioneer China, asked, “Without China’s food security, how can we ever imagine an effective, realistic, sustainable global food-security system?” But DuPont Pioneer’s goal, of course, is not global food security or feeding the Chinese people, but rather increasing market share and profit by keeping China as a customer. And the Department of Justice has taken up the argument that such a goal is not only of importance to our economy but a matter of national security, an unsettling conflation of the interests of large corporations with that of the country itself.

Today, it’s estimated that 92 percent of American corn and 94 percent of American soybeans are GMOs, almost all of it produced by Monsanto or DuPont Pioneer, and again, nearly half of the seed sold globally. Activists in both China and the United States have raised concerns about just two corporations having so much influence over the world food supply, with so little transparency. (Despite repeated requests, DuPont Pioneer declined to participate in this story.)

But these fears, while well founded, miss the larger point of what such companies represent: the intent of the U.S. government to use food as an ever-more powerful point of leverage to wield over large, increasingly hungry nations like China. The prosecution of Mo Hailong and his circle stands as a warning to the Chinese government, issued through its proxy companies. The ears in the field, the seeds in the ground, even the pollen on the wind, are American-owned and American-protected. They are available to the world as food only if you agree to our conditions and are willing to pay our price.