(Reuters) - A federal jury on Thursday convicted a Chinese scientist in Kansas of conspiring to steal samples of a variety of genetically engineered rice seeds from a U.S. research facility, the U.S. Justice Department said, the latest attempt at agricultural theft linked to China.
Weiqiang Zhang, 50, a Chinese national living in Manhattan, Kansas, was convicted on three counts, including conspiracy to steal trade secrets and interstate transportation of stolen property, the department said in a statement.
Zhang, who has a doctorate from Louisiana State University, worked as a rice breeder for Kansas-based Ventria Bioscience Inc, which develops genetically programmed rice used in the therapeutic and medical fields.
He stole hundreds of rice seeds produced by Ventria and stored them at his Manhattan residence, the statement said.
In recent years, U.S. law enforcement officials have urged agriculture executives and security officers to increase their vigilance and report suspicious activity involving farm products, citing a growing economic and national security threat to the sector.
The number of international economic espionage cases referred to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is rising, up 15 percent each year from 2009 to 2014 and up 53 percent in 2015, according to the FBI.
In Zhang's case, employees of a crop research institute in China visited him in 2013 in Kansas. U.S. customs officers found seeds belonging to Ventria in the luggage of Zhang's visitors as they prepared to leave the United States for China, the department said.
Last year, a Chinese man charged with conspiracy to steal high-tech U.S. corn seeds pleaded guilty in federal court in Iowa for participating in the theft of the patented seeds with the intention of transporting them to China.
The case laid bare the value, and vulnerability, of advanced food technology in a world with 7 billion mouths to feed, 1.36 billion of them Chinese.
China bans commercial growing of GMO grains due to public opposition to the technology. Still, President Xi called in 2014 for China to innovate and dominate the technique, which promises high yields through resistance to drought, pests and disease.
In October, a geneticist at the U.S. Agriculture Department, Wengui Yan, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI when questioned about plans to send U.S. rice samples to China. Yan admitted a group of Chinese tourists in 2013 told him of their plans to steal engineered U.S. rice.
(Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Richard Chang and Chris Reese)