LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Seeds may not look impressive but in the world of agricultural research, they can mean big money.
This week, federal prosecutors unveiled charges in two cases involving defendants from China accused of conspiring to steal seeds.
In one case, two agricultural scientists from China are accused of conspiring to take seeds from a research facility in Kansas and pass them to a Chinese delegation visiting the United States.
Prosecutors said Wengui Yan and Weiqiang Zhang arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the U.S. this year and that customs agents later found stolen seeds in the delegation's luggage before the group flew back to China.
Yan, of Stuttgart, Ark., and Zhang, of Manhattan, Kan., are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
At a detention hearing Friday, a federal judge in Little Rock ordered Yan, a naturalized U.S. citizen, to remain in custody after prosecutors argued that he could flee the country. Yan's lawyer, Chris Tarver, said Yan has lived in the U.S. for years and that authorities had seized the passport.
U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Thomas Ray acknowledged that Yan has strong ties to Arkansas, but added, "There is a strong inference from the complaint that Dr. Yan and his co-defendant were involved in a conspiracy to try to get advanced agricultural technology into the hands of the delegation that they helped to invite into the country."
Zhang is set to have a hearing Tuesday in Kansas. Zhang's attorney didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.
Also this week, prosecutors in Iowa said six men from China including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate have been charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America's leading seed developers.
It wasn't immediately clear if the cases in Kansas and Iowa are related. But seed developers spend millions of dollars a years to develop new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.
Yan worked for the Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas, and Zhang worked as an agricultural seed breeder for a biopharmaceutical company that has a production facility in Junction City, Kan., according to a court document.
Prosecutors only identified the business where Zhang worked as Company A, but said the business invested about $75 million in technology used to create seeds.
"If this technology was compromised or the seeds were stolen, Company A believes its entire research and development investment would be compromised," an FBI special agent wrote in a court document.
Zhang allegedly took seeds that his employer had grown and kept them at his home in Kansas. After a Chinese delegation visited the U.S., customs agents searched its luggage and found stolen seeds in envelopes and also in makeshift containers, including a newspaper page that had been folded in the shape of an envelope, according to court documents.
If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.