Senate Bill Proposes New Intelligence Office to Prevent Agricultural Tech Theft by China

October 1, 2020 Updated: October 1, 2020

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a proposal that seeks to keep U.S. agricultural innovations from falling into the hands of foreign countries, especially China.

The measure, named the Agricultural Intelligence Measures (AIM) Act (S.4768), would amend the Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994, paving the way for the establishment of an intelligence office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The office would be headed by a director with “significant experience serving in the intelligence community,” according to the language of the legislation. Meanwhile, the office would act as a “liaison” between the secretary of agriculture and the intelligence community.

To understand foreign threats, the office would need to work with both the intelligence community and U.S. national laboratories, the bill states.

The office would focus on foreign threats such as theft of U.S. agriculture knowledge and technology, biological warfare, cyber operations, and other means of “sabotaging and disrupting U.S. agriculture,” according to the bill.

“The Chinese Communist Party wants to undermine vital American industries through sabotage and intellectual property theft—U.S. agriculture is no exception,” Cotton said in a Sept. 30 statement from his office.

“Our bill will help safeguard the food and technology that our country depends on for its prosperity and freedom.”

A total of $970,000 would be appropriated for the office for the fiscal year 2021, if the bill is enacted.

Cotton’s bill is the companion version of a House bill (H.R.8238) introduced by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) on Sept. 14.

For years, the regime in Beijing has aimed to modernize the country’s agriculture sector. In February 2018, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, a group of Party elites, and the cabinet-like State Council, released a document outlining a roadmap for “rural vitalization.”

The roadmap called for “decisive” progress to be made by 2035.

In December 2019, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology said it planned to establish about 30 “high-tech industry demonstration zones” by 2025 in a bid to create agricultural “Silicon Valleys.”

A month later, in January 2020, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission jointly unveiled a six-year plan for digitizing China’s agriculture sector, such as expanding internet coverage to 70 percent of rural areas by 2025.

The Chinese regime’s agricultural ambition is fueled in part by intellectual property theft and state-run job recruitment programs, as evident by recent cases uncovered by federal prosecutors.

In November 2019, Xiang Haitao, who worked for U.S.-based agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology firm Monsanto and its subsidiary between 2008 and 2017, was indicted on charges including conspiracies to commit theft of trade secrets and espionage. He allegedly tried to take Monsanto’s proprietary farming software to China.

According to the indictment, Xiang quit his job at Monsanto after being selected as a recruit for a Chinese talent plan.

Zhang Weiqiang, who worked for Kansas-based Ventria Bioscience, stole genetically engineered rice seeds from his employer, attempting to hand over the seeds to a Chinese crop institute. In April 2018, he was found guilty and sentenced to 121 months in prison.

The USDA is currently investigating unsolicited packages of unknown seeds from China, which began to arrive in U.S. residents’ mailboxes in late July; All 50 U.S. states have issued warnings about these packages, advising people not to plant the seeds.

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