National Security

Chinese National Pleads Guilty To Spying, Stealing Trade Secret From Monsanto

(Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)

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A Chinese national pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage at an American agribusiness based in St. Louis, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

Haitao Xiang, 44, said he obtained a trade secret from Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, where he was employed as an imaging scientist from 2008 to 2017, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). He downloaded the information to a memory card and tried to take it to China with the intent of giving it to the Chinese government, the DOJ stated.

The trade secret involved the Nutrient Optimizer, part of a program developed by Monsanto and The Climate Corporation to help farmers gather and save important data to help enhance their output. The Nutrient Optimizer was thought to be the intellectual property of Monsanto and its subsidiary, the DOJ said. (RELATED: Navy Nuclear Engineer, Wife Arrested for Espionage)

“The American worker suffers when adversaries, like the Government of China, steal technology to grow their economies,” said Alan E. Kohler Jr, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.

“It’s not just military technology developed in secret labs that adversaries want; in this case, it was agricultural technology used by American farmers to improve crop yields,” Kohler Jr. said, noting that “economic security is national security.”

Xiang tried to fly to China immediately after leaving Monsanto in June 2017, the DOJ said. After searching Xiang and his luggage at the airport, federal officials later found copies of the Nutrient Optimizer on an electronic device belonging to Xiang.

Xiang worked at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science before returning to the U.S. and facing arrest. A federal grand jury indicted him in November 2019 on eight charges, ABC News reported.

Xiang will be sentenced April 7 and faces up to 15 years in prison, with a possible fine of $5 million, the DOJ said.

Charles Lieber, a prominent scientist at Harvard University, was found guilty on six counts of lying about his connections to China. Lieber’s arrest was part of the China Initiative, a counter-espionage program started by the DOJ during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Professors from Stanford University sent a letter to the DOJ in September 2021 requesting that end the China Initiative, claiming the program constitutes an obstacle to scientific advancements and fosters anti-Asian sentiment.