TODAY

– October 30, 2014

Scientists charged in seed-theft conspiracy

(AP) — Seeds may not look impressive, but in the world of agricultural research, they can mean big money.

This week, federal prosecutors unveiled charges in two cases involving defendants from China accused of conspiring to steal seeds for commercial espionage.

A detention hearing is set to get underway Friday in Little Rock for one of two agricultural scientists from China accused of conspiring to take seeds from a research facility in Kansas and pass them to a Chinese delegation visiting the United States.

Prosecutors said Wengui Yan and Weiqiang Zhang arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the U.S. this year and that customs agents found stolen seeds in the delegation's luggage before the group flew back to China.

Yan, of Stuttgart, Ark., and Zhang, of Manhattan, Kan., are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. Zhang's hearing is set for Tuesday in Kansas. Attorneys for the men didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Friday.

Also this week, prosecutors in Iowa said six men from China including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate have been charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America's leading seed developers.

It wasn't immediately clear if the cases in Kansas and Iowa are related. But seed developers spend millions of dollars a years to develop new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.

Yan worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas, and Zhang worked as an agricultural seed breeder for a biopharmaceutical company that has a production facility in Junction City, Kan., according to a court document filed Thursday in Kansas.

Prosecutors only identified the business where Zhang worked as Company A, but said the business invested about $75 million in technology used to create seeds.

"If this technology was compromised or the seeds were stolen, Company A believes its entire research and development investment would be compromised," an FBI special agent wrote in a court document.

Zhang allegedly took seeds that his employer had grown and kept them at his home in Kansas. Someone at the crop research institute in China contacted Yan about plans for a delegation to visit the U.S., according to court documents.

Yan and Zhang arranged for the delegation to come this year, and when it was preparing to fly back to China, customs agents found a number of seeds in their luggage, according to court documents.

Some were in envelopes while others were lodged in makeshift containers, including a newspaper page that had been folded in the shape of an envelope, according to the documents.

If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

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