A Chinese national has pleaded guilty to the theft of agricultural secrets from the US, intended to reach the hands of scientists across the pond. 

Xiang Haitao, formerly living in Chesterfield, Missouri, assumed a post at Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, between 2008 and 2017, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said on Thursday

Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed an online platform for farmers to manage field and yield information in a bid to improve land productivity. One aspect of this technology was an algorithm called the Nutrient Optimizer, which US prosecutors say was considered “a valuable trade secret and their intellectual property.”

According to the DoJ, the former employee stole this information “for the purpose of benefitting a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China.”

In June 2017, Xiang left these companies and boarded a flight back to China a day after. The 44-year-old drew the attention of airport officials who conducted a search – but it was not until later that investigators found copies of the Nutrient Optimizer stored on his electronic devices. 

Xiang was still able to leave the United States and began working for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science. 

However, during a return trip to the US, Xiang was arrested and charged. The Chinese national submitted to the charge of conspiracy to commit economic espionage and faces up to 15 years behind bars, a maximum of three years supervised release – and a fine of up to $5 million. 

Sentencing is due to take place on April 7. 

“Mr. Xiang used his insider status at a major international company to steal valuable trade secrets for use in his native China,” commented US Attorney Sayler Fleming for the Eastern District of Missouri. “We cannot allow US citizens or foreign nationals to hand sensitive business information over to competitors in other countries, and we will continue our vigorous criminal enforcement of economic espionage and trade secret laws.”

Monsanto, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in December to 30 ‘environmental crimes,’ including the illegal use of a banned pesticide in Hawaii. The plea agreement includes a fine of $12 million. Bayer closed the acquisition of Monsanto in 2018 and is now facing a potential class-action lawsuit from investors and a demand of $2.5 billion over claims of failed due diligence. 

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