Seed Spy : Planet Money Espionage. Deceit. Theft. In this episode we follow the case of a global effort to steal top secret high technology: seeds. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
NPR logo

Seed Spy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/884054668/899849897" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Seed Spy

Seed Spy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/884054668/899849897" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

Kevin Montgomery is a corn breeder. He selects and grows corn in order to make new varieties. Back in July 2012, his main gig was helping out a big international company with this kind of work. But on the day in question, Kevin was at home in his own farm field in rural Illinois.

KEVIN MONTGOMERY: It's one of the hottest days of the year.

ARONCZYK: And he's been outside, tending to his corn.

MONTGOMERY: I was setting up plants for pollinating. I'm already dripping wet with sweat. I come into the house. I get a glass of lemonade. And while I'm standing, drinking the lemonade in front of the refrigerator with the door still open, my wife, Kathy (ph), says, are you expecting any visitors?

ARONCZYK: Kevin says no. And his wife says, well, there's a black SUV coming up the driveway.

MONTGOMERY: I don't know anybody with a black SUV.

ARONCZYK: The black SUV stops. The driver cuts the engine.

MONTGOMERY: Gentlemen get out of the vehicle, and they're both wearing sport coats. So that in and of itself is unusual.

ARONCZYK: Kevin - he's wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves ripped off.

MONTGOMERY: They show me their badges. They say, we're from the FBI. They give me their names.

ARONCZYK: Kevin offers them lemonade. They refuse. They are apparently not allowed beverages of unknown origins.

MONTGOMERY: I can't imagine what they want to talk to me about. But I also know that the best thing for me to do is to try to remain calm and not panic and to answer the questions directly without being diversionary, which is kind of difficult for me.

ARONCZYK: Because when he's nervous, Kevin cracks a lot of jokes.

MONTGOMERY: I have been told that FBI agents have no sense of humor.

ARONCZYK: Was that your experience of these two gentlemen?

MONTGOMERY: These two guys did not have a sense of humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW DAVID PROSSER AND MARK DAVID ALLAWAY'S "DIAMOND DOG")

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. Kevin Montgomery has found himself in the middle of a fight, a fight that grew out of the Cold War and has turned into a battle over corn seeds. Today on the show, a crime that starts in a field in Iowa and leads to an international investigation that helps explain why the U.S. government has dedicated so much time to economic espionage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW DAVID PROSSER AND MARK DAVID ALLAWAY'S "DIAMOND DOG")

ARONCZYK: Kevin's farm is pretty small, but when he was a kid, he thought that it had everything.

MONTGOMERY: Corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat, cattle, pigs, sheep, token horse.

ARONCZYK: While most kids would probably love that token horse, Kevin preferred the crops. And that was solidified by this one kind of horrible incident that took place when Kevin was 8.

MONTGOMERY: At the time, my father had a large hog operation - 600 pigs. But how do I put this? The heating system didn't get installed in a timely manner, and he lost most of them.

ARONCZYK: Kevin was devastated. That did it. He was not going to be a hog farmer like his dad. But the same year as that hog disaster, Kevin's father set aside some of his land to try out a bunch of new seeds. His father planted corn, and he waited for the yield.

MONTGOMERY: And there was a hybrid in there that went 288 bushels per acre.

ARONCZYK: Which is a lot. Kevin learned that hybrid corn was grown from two different varieties. Usually the goal is to make more or hardier corn. And that particular seed was impressive.

MONTGOMERY: It beat the next best hybrid by a really wide margin.

ARONCZYK: Kevin was amazed. That was the year that he found his life's work. He goes to college for agriculture, ends up with a Ph.D. in plant breeding. He spends a couple decades working at seed companies. This was the career he always wanted. But the trouble for Kevin, the thing that eventually brought the FBI to his door, that started in May 2011. By that time, he'd started his own consulting business. And a friend told him, hey, a couple of business people - they're going to be coming through Illinois. They're interested in talking with you about your work. So Kevin sets up a lunch meeting.

MONTGOMERY: We were supposed to meet at Filippo's Pizza, but they were closed on Monday, so we ended up eating at the Brown Bag. They got an eclectic menu. They were open. And it was plenty of place to sit at the big tables, and so we can have a private discussion without having to worry about anybody overhearing, although...

ARONCZYK: It's just a group of gentlemen discussing seeds at that point.

MONTGOMERY: Yes.

ARONCZYK: Right.

Kevin orders a turkey club and the strawberry rhubarb pie, which he remembers because it was too early in the year for cherries, raspberries or blackberries.

MONTGOMERY: One gentleman did most of the talking, Robert Mo.

ARONCZYK: Robert Mo. He lived in Florida, and he worked for a Chinese agricultural company called Beijing Da Bei Nong Science and Technology Group, or DBN. And why are they interested in American corn as opposed to - I don't know - anywhere else in the world?

MONTGOMERY: Well, there's a detailed answer, and then there's a smart-ass answer.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Give me the smart-ass answer.

MONTGOMERY: The smart-ass answer is China is 50 years behind in corn hybrid development, and they need a quick solution.

ARONCZYK: But the execs - they give him the nonsmart-ass answer, which is that DBN company buys food, like soybeans and corn, to feed to livestock. Basically, China has a lot of people to feed. Those people are eating more and more meat. But they don't grow enough corn in China to feed all the livestock. So DBN company buys most of their animal feed from other countries and then sells it within China. And now they want to get into the seed business.

MONTGOMERY: I was still at a loss as to exactly what my role might be. There was no formal offer of a job, nothing like that. It was just introductions. And let's see where this goes.

ARONCZYK: A few months go by. There are emails, some calls, still nothing concrete. Then in October, Kevin gets invited to be a guest lecturer at this agricultural science school in China. And he figures, OK, this is his chance to impress the executives at DBN.

MONTGOMERY: When I told them that I was already going to be there - I had to go through Beijing on my way home - can I stop, chat with you?

ARONCZYK: They say, sure. Come by our headquarters. We'll show you around.

MONTGOMERY: I never worked for a company that had a headquarters in a building that large or in a city that large.

ARONCZYK: It's all pretty impressive to Kevin.

MONTGOMERY: I think more revealing, though, was the trip through the laboratory in the afternoon.

ARONCZYK: As Kevin's touring the biotech lab, he sees, you know, maybe 30 people seated at these long tables. Seems crowded to him. There's, like, a lot going on.

MONTGOMERY: At the very least, two floors that were occupied by these activities that were breeding research-related - growing plants, different light regimes, growth cabinets.

ARONCZYK: Kevin's thinking this is kind of odd. The seed companies where he worked before - these labs are totally off limits to visitors because what goes into a new seed is a big trade secret. It's like the algorithm behind Google search or the ingredients in McDonald's special sauce. You don't just let foreigners into the kitchen.

MONTGOMERY: There was a lot of emphasis placed on me being given access to a tour of the lab, but it was unclear what the purpose was for them to give me that kind of access.

ARONCZYK: Kevin wonders, OK, well, maybe companies in China don't consider new seeds as something secretive. But remember, he's there because he wants a job, so he doesn't want to ask too many questions, doesn't want to be a smart-ass. And this restraint pays off. Two months later, DBN offers him a job, and Kevin gives an enthusiastic yes.

MONTGOMERY: The title was germplasm acquisition coordinator.

ARONCZYK: Germplasm acquisition coordinator.

MONTGOMERY: I find and test the hybrids as candidates for introduction to China.

ARONCZYK: So, finally, Kevin turned that original lunch meeting at the Brown Bag into a real gig. In the spring of 2012, his main contact with DBN company, Robert Mo - he buys some farmland in Illinois, and he asks Kevin if he can start planting and testing out new hybrids. So Kevin acquires enough seeds to plant 16 rows of corn. And every week and a half or so, he gets in his car, drives from his farm to go and check on this corn. He looks to see if the leaves are healthy, if the crops are growing and developing.

Is it a nice farm?

MONTGOMERY: No, the farm was poorly drained. There were many, many places on the farm where the water stood after a heavy rain.

ARONCZYK: And no crops would grow in these giant puddles. It's frustrating. Kevin really wants to do well at his new gig to impress DBN with his knowledge of hybrid corn. But this farmland is really bad. He's thinking anyone who knows anything about growing crops would not have bought this land.

MONTGOMERY: So I begin to wonder, what purpose am I serving here?

ARONCZYK: Regardless, he does his best for a couple of months until that black SUV with the humorless FBI agents pulls into his driveway. Remember, Kevin was being interviewed by the FBI. He's trying to stay calm, be less diversionary than he usually is. And then they start in with the questions.

MONTGOMERY: We understand you were in China in October 2011. I said, yes. We want to know everywhere you went, everyone you talked to and everything you talked about.

ARONCZYK: An hour goes by, then another hour.

MONTGOMERY: When they said they wanted to know everything that we talked about, I talked about the salted-in-the-shell duck eggs that I had for breakfast the first morning I was there.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Which were good?

MONTGOMERY: Yes.

ARONCZYK: Did the FBI appreciate hearing about them?

MONTGOMERY: No.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter). This must have felt like the longest interview of the FBI agents' lives. After four and a half hours of questioning Kevin, they finally started getting to the point.

MONTGOMERY: And, basically, it's a machine gun-like effect. They start asking questions faster than I can answer. Who paid for the hotel? How much was the room? Where did you go?

ARONCZYK: Kevin still has no idea why he's being interviewed by the FBI.

MONTGOMERY: Then it really became pointed. Did Mr. Mo ever give you any seed? Did you ever give any seed to Mr. Mo? Did Mr. Mo ever ask you to obtain on his behalf any seed or technology that you were not permitted to have? That's when it hit me who they were investigating and about what. And a wave of nausea swept over me.

ARONCZYK: He starts thinking back to all the weird stuff - the lack of clarity in his job, those low-security labs in Beijing, the farm that keeps flooding. And then the FBI tells them they have concerns about Robert Mo and DBN's company's activities. And they want Kevin's help.

MONTGOMERY: The FBI recruited me to report back to them. They said, we're not asking you to spy.

ARONCZYK: Which is a bit like saying, please put these chopped onions in the frying pan, but we're not asking you to cook.

Kevin - he's done nothing wrong. And he does not want to be considered complicit in whatever DBN company's illegal activities might be. So, yes, he agrees to spy for the FBI. After the break, why the FBI cares so much about Robert Mo's corn seeds.

I learned about this story from a book called "The Scientist And The Spy." And, yeah, the book is about Kevin and corn and China, but it's also about this moment in history. It's a moment when the U.S. government and the FBI start caring a lot about foreign countries stealing secrets from American corporations.

MARA HVISTENDAHL: This story of economic espionage goes back to the 1990s at the end of the Cold War.

ARONCZYK: This is Mara Hvistendahl, and she wrote that book. She says that what happened is that all of these countries have these highly trained intelligence officers, and they don't really have as much to do anymore. So spies from the former Soviet Union and Israel and France, they start leaving their government jobs and they end up going to work for big corporations. When they get there, they do what they do best.

HVISTENDAHL: Stealing secrets - like, they were helping steal intelligence on behalf of these companies. There is a story of French intelligence services bugging the first-class cabins on Air France flights and then somehow gleaning useful intelligence that they could pass on to their companies.

ARONCZYK: I just picture, like, a whole first class full of people asleep, but OK.

HVISTENDAHL: I know - totally (laughter).

ARONCZYK: I guess they're chatting with each other. There's trade secrets in first class.

Was America also doing this kind of spying? Mara says that U.S. corporations claim they were not. By the 1990s, the U.S. government was definitely pouring tons of resources into fighting industrial espionage, and we still are. Right now, the FBI has over a thousand open investigations.

In the, like, pie chart of countries that we're worried about, how big a piece of the pie is China, do you think?

HVISTENDAHL: I think China is the pie now.

ARONCZYK: And how much of it do you think is tinged with racism?

HVISTENDAHL: Well, I think there are a few things going on.

ARONCZYK: It's complicated. On one hand, Mara says that there have been a lot of Chinese American people who have been targeted unfairly in these cases. On the other hand, there's also been a lot of cases of Chinese companies stealing American secrets. In Mara's book, she focuses on this one case of economic espionage that deals with these complexities. It's the story that I've been telling you about, the case of Kevin and the corn and the company from Beijing.

MARK BETTEN: Well, it was certainly one of the most complex and complicated cases I worked on in my 20 years.

ARONCZYK: This is Special Agent Mark Betten. He was not one of the two guys who showed up at Kevin's farm in that black SUV. He was in charge of the whole case, a case that came to be known as Operation Purple Maze. Really, that's what it was called.

He's retired now, but for a while, he did counterintelligence work on economic espionage out of the FBI's Des Moines office. And part of that job meant visiting these high-tech companies that were nearby. So back in 2011, he sets up a meeting with DuPont Pioneer, the major seed company.

BETTEN: We kind of gave them our spiel about what the FBI does, some indicators of theft of intellectual property, things to watch out for, cybercrime.

ARONCZYK: It's his standard presentation.

BETTEN: As we were kind of wrapping up that meeting, I just kind of asked off the cuff, have you had any - anything happen recently that's been of concern to you? And when I asked them that question, they said, well, yeah, we did. Just two weeks ago, one of our field managers was out near a field near Tama, Iowa. And when he was out there, he saw two Asian males near one of our - what Pioneer said was a grower field.

ARONCZYK: Special Agent Betten is like, I don't understand what's so suspicious about that. And also, what's a grower field? The team at DuPont Pioneer explains to him that this is where they grow their latest, most advanced seeds. They're like, these fields - they are really important. These fields are in secret locations.

BETTEN: Tama's in the middle of nowhere. I mean, a lot of folks think Iowa's in the middle of nowhere. But Tama's in the middle of nowhere of nowhere. So, I mean, it is really remote.

ARONCZYK: But still, he doesn't really see why they're getting so worked up about it.

Were you really just like, can you guys call me when something actually important happens?

(LAUGHTER)

BETTEN: Well, that might've been kind of initially what went through my head. But, you know, again, they seem fairly serious about it and concerned about it.

ARONCZYK: The people at DuPont Pioneer explained to him these seeds are incredibly valuable. You can't just walk into a store and buy these seeds. You have to license them. You have to agree to a set of rules, sign a contract because these seeds are our intellectual property.

BETTEN: Just to develop one successful line that they're going to use in their breeding program, they'll spend anywhere from five to eight years and anywhere from $30 million to $50 million of research. So it's an extremely time-consuming, expensive, research-driven process to select these seeds.

ARONCZYK: And they go on, if these seeds got into the wrong hands, it's possible they could be reverse engineered. Then we'll have lost all of our super-important trade secrets. Another thing - these seeds make the company a ton of money because farmers are contractually bound to not save seeds, so they end up having to buy new seeds every season.

At the end of the meeting, Special Agent Betten asks them, do you guys happen to know the names of the men who were found digging in your fields? And they do. One of the men - he lives in Florida. His name is Robert Mo, and he works for a company called DBN.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW ROBERTSON'S "SILENT STAR")

ARONCZYK: For two years after that meeting, Special Agent Betten is keeping track of DBN. It seems that the company is walking down two different paths at the same time. There's the legal path, where they hire Kevin, a real plant breeder, to plant some seeds for testing, and the illegal path, where they sneak into fields and steal corn.

Then something happens that prompts their next move. They'd been stashing the stolen corn in a rented storage unit. The owner of that storage unit was worried that it might start attracting mice, and he tells them, you have to get your corn out of this space. So in the fall of 2012, the executives decide they have to fly their corn seeds back to Beijing. Thanks to the investigations, the wiretap surveillance, help from informants like Kevin, the seed grower, the FBI figures out the plan.

BETTEN: They all drove and stayed overnight in the hotel outside O'Hare Airport. And we knew that they were flying out the next day.

ARONCZYK: So Special Agent Betten makes a plan with Border Patrol to stop the executives at the airport and pretend that they're doing a routine bag check.

BETTEN: We searched their bags that they had checked to go on to Beijing. And inside the bags, we found boxes of microwave popcorn.

ARONCZYK: And when they picked up the sealed box and shook it...

BETTEN: It sounded like corn, and it was corn.

ARONCZYK: But it wasn't Orville Redenbacher's.

BETTEN: They had bought the multipack that you would get at Costco or Sam's Club - the big family packs. So - and they looked like they were factory sealed. But when you actually opened up the box, inside were tiny Manila - small, like, key-sized envelopes. And each one of those contained three to four kernels of yellow corn with a generic four-digit code on it.

ARONCZYK: They were clearly hiding something.

BETTEN: We went up to interview the three individuals about what this corn was doing in their luggage, and they just said that they were corn salesmen and that they were samples and - to give to farmers.

ARONCZYK: Which is not a believable story. Special Agent Betten is sure that these are tiny pieces of intellectual property. His agents confiscate the seeds. But...

BETTEN: Unfortunately, at that point, we just didn't quite have enough probable cause to arrest them. And so we had to allow them to go ahead and board the plane to return to China. And that's what they did.

ARONCZYK: He later had the seeds tested and discovered, yes, those seeds belonged to DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto. It was attempted theft of intellectual property, a case of economic espionage. And almost all of the perpetrators got away.

BETTEN: That was a really frustrating part of the case for me personally. In fact, it still sticks with me today (laughter) because we never did end up getting those three 'cause they never came back into the country.

ARONCZYK: They never came back.

BETTEN: Correct. There's currently Interpol notices out for them. But as far as I know, currently, they are still at large.

ARONCZYK: Robert Mo was the only one of the original defendants who got arrested. In 2016, the case was going to trial, and the FBI asked Kevin Montgomery, the plant breeder, to go.

MONTGOMERY: I had been in contact with the assistant district attorney for the case, and they were planning on using me as a prosecution witness.

ARONCZYK: Then, two weeks before the trial was supposed to start, Robert Mo pleaded guilty. He was sent to prison for three years. And with that, Kevin's role in the investigation was over. Ultimately, he felt used by DBN. But he also felt badly for Robert Mo.

MONTGOMERY: In all the other seed espionage-like activities, seed theft, in the instances where it was established that intellectual property theft occurred in the U.S. between U.S. companies, I don't recall that anyone ever spent one day in jail for the theft. So is it fair? Well, not in that light.

ARONCZYK: As for Kevin, he is still in the seed consulting game. He admits that he's now a little more careful about who he works with. He'd rather not end up in the middle of an economic espionage case again. But he is still consulting with companies in China.

MONTGOMERY: Some people might say, well, Kevin, why are you continuing to have dealings with companies in China? Didn't this sour you on that kind of activity? I say, well, in one sense, it did. I said, but I can't hold all of China responsible for the actions of two or three people.

ARONCZYK: A huge chunk of Kevin's business is now in China. He says his Mandarin is poor but improving.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN NIGHT, ET AL.'S "HONEY COATED")

ARONCZYK: There is so much more to this story, so please be sure to check out the book that this episode is based on. It's called "The Scientist And The Spy." It's written by Mara Hvistendahl, and it is a great read.

If you've ever stolen a trade secret or had a trade secret stolen, email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We're now on TikTok. We're @planetmoney. Also, we are now in search of our next PLANET MONEY intern. You should apply. Go to npr.org/internships.

Today's show was produced by Darian Woods, Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and James Sneed. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

If you like PLANET MONEY, please rate us in one of those apps where you rate stuff. Or tell a friend about us.

I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN NIGHT, ET AL.'S "HONEY COATED")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.