The more US agricultural technology China acquires, especially through theft, in order to become dominant in the agritech field, the worse the US will fare when it comes to selling its own technology, whether to China or third countries. (Image source: iStock)
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) recently warned that China's interest in the agriculture of the United States poses both a serious economic challenge and a security risk to the United States.
China sits on 7-9% percent of the world's arable land, 294 million acres, but is home to nearly 20% (1.4 billion in 2020) of the global population (nearly 8 billion in 2022). By comparison, the US has more than 375 million acres of arable land and a population of 329.5 million.
China has sought to resolve its dilemma of achieving food security by buying up farmland and agricultural businesses abroad on a huge scale, including in the United States, and by seeking to advance its own agricultural technology, including through theft of US agricultural technology.
"The Chinese government's domestic efforts, however, are not enough to solve China's problems, "the USSC report noted.
"Recognizing its challenges, China has also gone abroad to address its needs through investments and acquisitions of farmland, animal husbandry, agricultural equipment, and intellectual property (IP), particularly of GM [genetically modified] seeds. The United States is a global leader in all of these fields, making it a prime trading partner and often a target of China's efforts to strengthen its agriculture sector and food security, sometimes through illicit means. These efforts present several risks to U.S. economic and national security. Chinese companies' acquisition of hog herds in the United States may save China money and enhance its domestic capacity; however, this could also reduce China's need for U.S.-sourced production and redistributes the environmental effects of hog waste to U.S. communities. If further consolidations and Chinese investments in U.S. agricultural assets take place, China may have undue leverage over U.S. supply chains. China's access to U.S. agricultural IP may also erode U.S. competitiveness in agriculture technology that supports food production. Additionally, China's illicit acquisitions of GM seeds provides a jumpstart to China's own development of such seeds, deprives U.S. companies of revenue, and offers an opportunity to discover vulnerabilities in U.S. crops."
The more US agricultural technology China acquires, especially through theft, in order to become dominant in the agritech field, the worse the US will fare when it comes to selling its own technology, whether to China or third countries. One of the focus areas of the Made in China 2025 plan to become a world leader in technology and high-tech manufacturing is agricultural machinery such as high-end tractors and harvesters. The specific goal is for China to be able to satisfy 95% of its demand for agricultural machinery with equipment that is manufactured in China. According to the USCC report, those policies, underpinned in part by technological theft, have negatively affected US exports to China of agricultural equipment.
"In 2013, U.S. agricultural equipment sent to China totaled nearly $27 million," the USSC found.
"In 2015, the year the Made in China 2025 policy was introduced, exports were at about $16 million and have since dropped to around $9 million in 2021." This has serious implications for US competitiveness, especially because it may also affect US exports to third countries, who may now prefer to buy their agricultural equipment at a lower price from China, where labor costs are minimal.
China has been expanding its ownership of US land over the past decade from 13,720 acres in 2010 to 352,140 acres in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). China's largest purchase in the US agriculture sector so far has been Smithfield Foods in 2013, the largest pork producer in the US. China's WH Group -- a state-owned company, which began as a meatpacking business in China -- owns it today. At the time of the sale, Smithfield had 25 U.S. plants, 460 farms, and contracts with 2,100 producers in 12 states and the ownership of Smithfield accounted for more than 146,000 acres of US land.
The 352,140 acres that China owns in the US -- 192,000 of them agricultural acres, and the rest "other" land -- is a small amount compared to how much land countries like Canada and the Netherlands own in the US. Canada, for instance, owns 4.7 million acres, while the Netherlands owns 4.6 million acres. Canada and the Netherlands, however, do not constitute threats to the US, nor are they trying to dominate the world.
"The trend is what is most concerning about the almost 200,000 acres," Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) said.
"At first, you look at China's acreage here and think it is small, but that has almost all been acquired in the past decade. You also have to couple the acreage with the fact that the CCP's stated goal is to remake the world according to their benefit. The trend is for them to continue buying our assets and it has to stop before it becomes an even bigger problem."
The Chinese have not stopped at land, but have expanded their operations to include livestock and grain.
"Chinese scientists have in certain cases chosen to simply steal U.S. agriculture IP and technology rather than try to research and develop them themselves," the USSC noted.
"Acquiring U.S. trade secrets through agricultural espionage has become a convenient way for China to improve its agricultural output and become more competitive in global markets. China's GM crop research, including seed breeding, is still underdeveloped relative to the United States, which is the largest exporter of GM crops. The growing GM crop industry in China would greatly benefit from access to protected U.S. seed lines that take many years and resources to develop. Agricultural IP theft could enable Chinese agribusinesses to undercut U.S. competitors on international seed markets."
The USSC estimates that each inbred seed "can cost up to $30 million to $40 million in lab costs, field work, and trial and error."
One famous case of seed theft was successfully made by the FBI against Mo Hailong, a Chinese national who was sent to China by the Dabeinong (DBN) Technology Group, a company that makes feed products and is closely connected to the Chinese government. In the US, he collected thousands of inbred corn seeds from fields in Iowa and elsewhere owned by the Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer companies and then shipped the seeds back to China. As part of his operations, Hailong had also purchased two farms in Iowa and Illinois. He was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine.
"Mo Hailong stole valuable proprietary information in the form of seed corn from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto in an effort to transport such trade secrets to China," said U.S. Attorney Kevin E. VanderSchel at the time.
"Theft of trade secrets is a serious federal crime, as it harms victim companies that have invested millions of dollars and years of work toward the development of propriety technology. The theft of agricultural trade secrets, and other intellectual property, poses a grave threat to our national economic security."
In a more recent case from April 2022, Xiang Haitao, a Chinese national, was sentenced to 29 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $150,000 fine after working as a scientist at the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto for nearly a decade. He was convicted of attempting to steal a valuable algorithm related to farming from the company and attempting to take it to China so that it could help accelerate technological advancements for the Chinese government.
"The government of China does not hesitate to go after the ingenuity that drives our economy," said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division.
"Stealing our highly prized technology can lead to the loss of good-paying jobs here in the United States, affecting families, and sometimes entire communities. Our economic security is essential to our national security. That's why at the FBI protecting our nation's innovation is both a law enforcement and a top national security priority."
China has also made advancements in improving its livestock's genetics, simply by buying US animals. "China has purchased millions of U.S. animals as breeding stock, saving itself decades of time and resources on the advanced agricultural research that goes into improving animal health and nutritional quality..." the USSC noted.
Stealing agricultural intellectual property, however, could not only have significant negative economic consequences, but also possibly military implications in the form of bio-warfare. "While China's main interest in obtaining GM seeds from the United States is in improving its crop yields, the potential weaponization of agricultural IP is possible," the USSC warned.
"...Similar to hacking a computer code, Beijing could easily hack the code or DNA of U.S. GM seeds and conduct biowarfare by creating some type of blight that could destroy U.S. crops... One vulnerability of GM seeds is their limited genetic variation. Consequently, a virus or fungus engineered to kill a GM plant could wipe out an entire crop with no genetic variation to mitigate the losses. In a natural crop, a variety of DNA traits in the field could mitigate some losses and ensure some of the plants survive the viral or fungal infection... Defensive applications of synthetic biology may also be a motivation behind China's desire to access advanced U.S. seed lines or other agricultural IP. Perhaps indicating sentiment among Chinese scientists, Jiang Gaoming, a researcher and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote an article on U.S. biodefense efforts, exhorting other Chinese scientists to channel their research toward China's biological defense, commenting, 'Friends, GMO experts, your wisdom should be aimed at the enemy, not your own.'"
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.