Chinese scientist gets 10 years in U.S. prison over theft of GMO rice

Zhang Weiqiang is shown in this Wyandotte County Detention Center handout photo released to Reuters December 12, 2013. REUTERS/Wyandotte County Detention Center/Handout via Reuters

(Reuters) - A Chinese scientist in Kansas was sentenced on Wednesday to more than 10 years in a federal prison for conspiring to steal samples of a variety of genetically engineered rice seeds from a U.S. research facility, the U.S. Justice Department said.

U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia in the District of Kansas sentenced Weiqiang Zhang, 51, a Chinese national living in Manhattan, Kansas, to 121 months in prison.

Zhang was convicted in February 2017 on three counts, including conspiracy to steal trade secrets and interstate transportation of stolen property, the department said in a statement.

“Today’s sentence demonstrates the significant consequences awaiting those who would steal trade secrets from American companies,” said John P. Cronan, DOJ’s acting assistant attorney general.

Neither Zhang nor his attorney could be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Zhang, who holds 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.

China had long banned commercial growing of GMO grains due to public opposition to the technology. But last year, ChemChina’s purchase of Swiss agrochemical and seed company Syngenta was seen by market analysts and industry experts as a sign that the country was becoming more open to production of genetically modified crops.

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.

Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis