Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

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March 9, 2014
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Farms Finest: Something seedy is going on

I remember being told as a child that if you dug a hole deep enough, it would go to China. An utterly ridiculous thing to say to a kid, but today it certainly holds some truth if the conversation is about Monsanto.

What was previously simple food has recently created news worthy of an espionage novel, or at least “Saturday Night Live” — story lines that describe Chinese businessmen crawling around on their hands and knees in Midwestern cornfields or how the FBI bugged border-crossing cars that were laced with ears of corn and seeds wrapped in cocaine-like packets.

In the center of rural America, China has been dispatching a version of agriculture secret agents with a mission to dig for gold. Seeds and ears of gold that is, lying just a few inches below fresh topsoil or on dark-green stalks.

The story has been unfolding for over two years and includes FBI court orders to bug rental cars that were being stuffed with ears of corn under the seats and inside trunks. Hours of Google Earth showed stooped businessmen picking their way through freshly planted cornfields, with their getaway cars still running.

Another scene played out at a Canadian border crossing in Highgate, Vt. An agent there stopped a car and found 44 hand-wrapped packets of seed corn inside a backpack. The corn-ring escapades continued at an international airport during a routine security check. There, in luggage headed to Beijing, four bulk-size boxes of Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn and Pop Weaver popcorn were stuffed full of seed corn wrapped in Subway restaurant napkins. Thirty other seed-wrapped napkins were found in the luggage owners’ pants pockets upon questioning.

On Dec. 12, NPR quoted The Associated Press as saying, “Federal agents obtained court orders to tap the cellphone and bug the rental car of the CEO of Kings Nower Seed, a subsidiary of Beijing-based conglomerate DBN Group.

“The FBI also placed GPS tracking devices on cars and tracked the men as they moved around the Midwest countryside, stopping at cornfields and buying bags of seed from dealers in Iowa and Missouri.”

It appears that Kings Nowers Seed of China, in 2012, also had purchased a farm in Monee, Ill., and had been filling up a nearby storage unit with collected corn seed.

The victims, in this case, are Pioneer Seed and Monsanto. At stake is about $75 million in patented technology and years of research in developing these hybrid seeds. While seed companies are scrambling to protect their intellectual property, the farmers also are concerned with theft. How can you secure miles of horizon-reaching, unfenced acres?

On Feb. 4, The New York Times wrote, “Analysts say one of their major problems is the fragmented seed industry in China. Much of the breeding research is done in state-funded universities and academies, and there is poor communication between them and the companies that sell and trade the seeds. So research often fails to yield strong commercial results.”

It is a known fact that China cannot grow enough corn to meet its demand. In December 2012, the country reported that more than 8 million acres of land was too polluted for farming. The result is that China must buy even more corn, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that China will have to import six times today’s volume by 2022.

The dust has not come close to settling on this corn heist, but if the seed-thieving ring is convicted, the fines could be $250,000 and 10 years in prison. The first trial is set to begin March 31, so get your GMO-free popcorn ready. For a more complete timeline of the corn-heist story, go to Farm Journals’ Agriculture website at www.agweb.com/farmjournal.

Joni Keefe currently works for a commercial airline while continuing to write about agriculture and food. Follow Farms Finest on Twitter, on Facebook and in The Aspen Times on Sundays.


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 9, 2014 12:00AM Published Mar 9, 2014 12:00AM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.