Weaponizing Intellectual Property: the Scientist and the Spy

China is the latest in the long list of post-World War II villains who threaten the American way of life, or America’s deserved spot at the head of the table, or the peace and prosperity of America’s allies, or the values of the West.

China’s particular threat is its ambition to replace the US at the top of the world’s economy through the appropriation of American or Western technology, and to use its economic dominion to advance an authoritarian political regime. Of lesser importance to American myth-makers is China’s success in raising 700 million of its people out of poverty, and its initiative in constructing economic infrastructure in former Western colonies who lack it in Africa and South Asia and even in the peripheries of Europe (Greece), that will help to raise living standards there. America’s leadership, even if it is to nowhere or to chaos, must not be challenged. To counter the China threat the US is using every advantage it believes it enjoys in global finance, global technology, global trade, and conventional and nuclear military deployments and technology (renewed arms race) to undermine China’s advance. This “pivot toward Asia” pre-dates the escalating hostile rhetoric of the Trump administration and will outlast it.

To justify its aggressive posture, the US has placed special emphasis on protecting intellectual property and counteracting industrial and technical espionage. This makes an outstanding piece of investigative journalism by Mara Hvistendahl, The Scientist and the Spy, especially timely and relevant.

In The Scientist and Spy, Ms. Hvistendahl traces a lengthy investigation and prosecution by the FBI of Robert Mo, a Chinese agronomist working for a Chinese firm in the US, who was accused and convicted of stealing ears of corn and seeds from Monsanto and/or Pioneer test plots in the Mid-West for potential “reverse engineering” (identification of corn plant genetics) by a seed company in China.

She meticulously tracks the events; deftly explains and illuminates the science; evaluates the activities of law enforcement and lawyers before, during and after prosecution; and conveys in a sensitive and understated tone the impacts of the case on the lives of the individuals and families most directly involved, both Chinese and American.

This “industrial espionage” was not sophisticated breaking and entering, enabled by high tech methods, to steal high-level industrial, cyber- or engineering processes. This “industrial espionage” was picking up ears of corn in a field. I note that the case began in 2012 and was concluded before the accession of Donald Trump to the Presidency.

The multiple ironies of “intellectual property” in agriculture run throughout the book. At the most basic level is the irony that “soybeans originally came from China, but then due to accidents of history and trade the major seed companies gained control of the crop and made money selling the seeds back to China,” (quoting Robert Mo.) The same could be said of corn, wheat, rice, cassava, all of which have travelled freely around the world from their points of origin, but are now in some sense “proprietary” rather than part of humanity’s “common.”

At another level of irony, the book clearly articulates the dilemmas and disadvantages faced by American farmers caused by the dominance of seed companies, who are in a position increasingly to dictate farming and management practices to protect their property in genetically engineered seeds. One of the important observations in the book is the decision both as matter of resource priorities and policy to abandon FBI and Justice Department anti-trust investigations of Monsanto and Pioneer, which would have benefitted American farmers, in favor of the pursuit and prosecution of the Chinese scientist. To the get the Chinese “spy” the FBI needed the cooperation of Monsanto in understanding the details of the science – what exactly was being “stolen.” To get Monsanto’s cooperation the FBI had to convert the company from target to ally by dropping the anti-trust case. To get the conviction, the FBI ended up protecting the very “intellectual property” rights that were harming American farmers. Decisions, decisions.

A further irony is that the genetic trait that was the basis for prosecution was specific modification to make the corn seed “Round-up ready.” A probable carcinogen, Round-up was a Monsanto weed-killer extensively used to suppress foreign plant material in corn fields and Monsanto bred seed-corn to resist the deleterious effect of Round-up. As a final irony Hvistendahl quotes a Bayer representative after the European company’s acquisition of Monsanto lauding the FBI’s protection of the American intellectual property it was acquiring.

Research in agronomy, plant genetics, and agricultural organization are crucial areas of work to address global issues of nutrition and living standards. Cooperation across international boundaries and sharing of knowledge about the most basic areas of human activity, like agriculture and food production, will be essential in addressing those issues. Past successes in food production like the Green Revolution in rice cultivation had international institutions and cooperation at the forefront. The Scientist and the Spy suggests that America has turned away from cooperation in a crucial area of food production – seed development. A similar – neo-liberal — approach to addressing the technical (intellectual property) issues of energy and climate change would contribute to climate catastrophe.

Most concerning is the recent kerfluffle of the US/UK/Canada intelligence cabal over allegations that Russian hackers were trying to “appropriate” knowledge about COVID vaccine development by researchers in those countries.  Free cooperative development of ideas in these crucial areas to improve the world – food, energy, health – should be the norm.  The Scientist and the Spy shows us how far we have strayed.