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Excerpt from The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Scientist and the Spy

A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage

by Mara Hvistendahl

The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl X
The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 336 pages

    Feb 2021, 336 pages


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Print Excerpt

Fall 2011

Deputy Cass Bollman sped toward the farm, the bright morning sun glaring through the window of his patrol car. To the north was the town of Bondurant, Iowa, where newly built houses huddled together on treeless lots, churches dominated street corners, and the marquee outside Dino's Storage read avoid all negative talk. To the south was a Tetris puzzle of cornfields. God-fearing citizens on one side, vast fields on the other, and two-lane 70th Avenue running like a ruler between the two. A few miles east of town, Bollman steered the patrol car toward the corn.

The fields were a few weeks from harvest, and the corn stretched over seven feet tall. Central Iowa had blossomed into the lingering, pleasant days that make its winter hibernation bearable. Just a few minutes earlier, Bollman had been about to take a coffee break at the Git 'n' Go when an alert came over the radio for an incident out by 96th Street. South of here walking westbound there is an Asian male wearing a suit walking through a farm field. He was dropped off. Nature of incident: suspicious.

Eighteen years in the Polk County Sheriff's Office had taught Bollman to suspend judgment. Bondurant was a sleepy place. Its dramas centered on grass clippings left in the street and holes dug in lawns by stray farm cats. But still Bollman saw his share of action. The area he patrolled included the outskirts of Des Moines, and in addition to making traffic stops, he had worked murders and negotiated for hostages. Once he pursued a meth-fueled driver in a car chase that ended with the driver's girlfriend being flung to her death in a grisly crash. Best-case scenario, he thought, the man in the field was simply an unusually well-dressed farmworker whom a neighbor had mistaken for an intruder. Worst-case scenario, the man was burying a body.

Bollman slowed the patrol car to a stop in a grassy clearing alongside a drainage ditch. About a hundred yards into the field was a thin, neatly dressed man. In the distance, row upon row of stalks lined up like infantry. The corn between the man and the road had been cleared, allowing Bollman a direct line of sight. To his left was a cheery stucco dwelling with a broad veranda. A white picket fence encircled a pasture for grazing horses. Two other deputies arrived around the same time and were on their way out to talk to the man, so Bollman walked over to the house to chat with the farmer who owned the land.

The farmer worked this land with his brother, planting part of it for their own use and part of it under contract with Monsanto. He told Bollman that he'd been out doing his morning rounds when he spotted the unfamiliar man walking on the Monsanto plot.

The corn the farmer grew for Monsanto was genetically modified inbred seed that the company used to produce commercial hybrids, which were sold at great profit to farmers for the next year's planting and eventually turned into food or fuel: perhaps Doritos, perhaps ethanol. The seeds had been spliced with genes that made them resistant to certain pesticides-most likely the Monsanto weed killer Roundup-allowing the farmers who eventually purchased the commercial offspring to freely spray for weeds or insects without killing their crop. The company considered them valuable intellectual property. Monsanto kept the locations of such contract plots secret and enforced this secrecy through aggressive lawsuits. Unlike the fields where farmers grew commercial corn, which sported small guideposts that doubled as advertisements for seed lines (Pioneer 3394, DeKalb 62-55), the Monsanto plot was unmarked. Even the farmer himself knew little about the seed growing on his land.

For part of the season, that was sufficient protection. Only locals who watched the Monsanto truck arrive to measure growth or spray pesticides knew that certain fields grew proprietary inbred seeds. The inbred seeds were planted in a pattern, with one or two rows of seeds designated as "males" for every four to six rows of "females." Then in mid-summer, as the commercial corn in the surrounding fields stood tall, Monsanto sent in machines to detassel the female rows of corn, shearing off their yellow, pollen-laden crowns in a mass spaying, leaving only the male plants intact. Soon after, the males fertilized the females, and then the company mowed down the male rows of corn. The field now looked like a buzz cut with lines shaved into it, making it easy for outsiders to identify. And the man looked like an outsider.

Excerpted from The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl. Copyright © 2020 by Mara Hvistendahl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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