In the clandestine world of spies and double agents, there are some constants: mysterious strangers, drop-off points, stolen secrets. But it’s not missile plans these spies are seeking.

Ted Genoways has a story in The New Republic today on the strange case of Mo Hailong and Mo Yun, currently awaiting trial for charges of conspiracy to steal trade secrets. The charges, and the means used to find the information to file them, are not so very unusual. What is unusual is what was taken: corn seeds.

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.”

The rest of the story details the cloak-and-dagger efforts of both sides to get and track the corn—complete with listening devices, high-speed car chases, hidden packages, and (naturally) many, many different varieties of corn seed.

Of course, there’s always been a lively trade of new seed varieties across borders—whether that of a neighboring farm or even a country—some of it by consent and some of it by shiftier means. What’s really changed are two things: First is the sheer amount of research, development, and, yes, money that goes into making these new varieties. But it’s also about a change in the way we think about food.

More and more, people are coming to acknowledge that food security, the ability of a country to consistently and constantly feed itself, is national security—and, with droughts, soil loss, and a growing population testing the bounds of our existing food systems—we can expect to see much more food espionage (and harder crackdowns) in the future.

Advertisement

You can—and should!—read the whole thing over at TNR.

Top image: American Gothic, Grant Wood