A former scientist employed by American agricultural giant Monsanto pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party against the U.S.
Xiang Haitao, 44, a Chinese national formerly residing in Chesterfield, Missouri, admitted to stealing trade secrets from Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017 where he worked as an imaging scientist.
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of the Chinese government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
The stolen technology was a digital, online farming software platform that could collect, store and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers. A critical feature of the platform was a proprietary predictive algorithm referred to as the Nutrient Optimizer, which Monsanto and The Climate Corporation describe as a “valuable trade secret.”
In June 2017, the day after leaving Monsanto and The Climate Corporation, Xiang returned to China. While leaving the U.S., officials discovered his devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer, which would have been useful to Xiang’s new employer: the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science
“Xiang pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 7. He faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, a potential fine of $5 million and a term of supervised release of not more than three years,” explains the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“The American worker suffers when adversaries, like the Government of China, steal technology to grow their economies,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “It’s not just military technology developed in secret labs that adversaries want; in this case, it was agricultural technology used by American farmers to improve crop yields. The FBI will continue investigating the theft of technology from American companies because economic security is national security.”
The Chinese Communist Party has increased its outreach and influence efforts to American farmers and, in many cases, have seen their overtures welcomed by high-level agriculture officials in the Biden White House.
The arrest follows the DOJ indicting researchers employed by American pharmaceutical companies for stealing trade secrets relevant to COVID-19 treatments.