The Planted Row: All’s fair in corn and espionage

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Farm Forum

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman who was sued by Monsanto for buying commodity soybeans from a local elevator and planting them as a late crop after his wheat was harvested. He sprayed Roundup on them and found that most of them were Roundup Ready beans. This gave him an inexpensive source of beans every year for his second crop, which was prone to failure.

Mr. Bowman lost his case. The Supreme Court ruled that we (WHO IS WE)cannot make copies of patented products. In order to take advantage of patented, cost-saving and yield-improving genetically modified crops, U.S. farmers must purchase new seed for each crop. This is the reality for modern farmers in our country. This provides the economic incentive for companies to spend millions of dollars researching and marketing improved plant genetics.

The crops grown in our country are sold all over the world. For instance, the corn grown here in South Dakota might end up in South America. But why is that? Surely other countries have their own farmers capable of producing the corn they need, right? Not always. Sometimes the soil and climate in those countries doesn’t allow them to produce the amount or quality of corn demanded by their consumers. Sometimes their farmers lack the expertise or access to modern technology that would allow them to remain competitive with U.S. farmers.

So, you see, the farmer who lives down the road from you is, in fact, an international businessman, and he has competitors all over the world. Outside of this country, however, many of his competitors are not subject to U.S. regulations, and sometimes that can give them an advantage. In order to stay in the game, the U.S. farmer must maintain an advantage not only in expertise but also in technology. That gets a bit tricky when foreign nationals try to steal that technology.

Last week, the FBI announced the arrest of a Mo Yun, a Chinese national, and indicted her for conspiring with other Chinese nationals to steal the trade secrets of several U.S.-based seed manufacturers. Mo Yun is the wife of the founder and current chairman of Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company (DBN), a Chinese conglomerate with a corn seed subsidiary.

The conspirators are accused of stealing inbred seeds, in some cases digging them out of a field, and attempting to ship them back to China via several methods, including hiding them in packages of popcorn. The stolen inbred seeds are the parent strains that produce the hybrids that DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto sell to American farmers.

You may recall that in recent months much has been written in the media about the fact that China has rejected more than a million tons of corn and corn products containing the genetically modified strain MIR 162. When this news broke, I heard one person respond, “If China doesn’t want your GM corn, you know it must be dangerous.” That’s one way to look at it. However, while U.S. corn is being stranded at the Chinese border for containing GM traits, Chinese nationals are digging around in Iowa cornfields looking for the secrets to reproducing GM corn. Do you think the Chinese are truly worried about the safety of the GM corn they have rejected?

Imagine a future in which DBN reproduces the newest, best corn hybrids developed in the U.S. and sells them to Chinese farmers at a greatly reduced price while farmers like Mr. Bowman are forced to pay through the nose for the same seed in the U.S. How competitive do you think American farmers would be in that future?

Do you have trouble imagining such a scenario? I bet the Chinese don’t.