An American flag waves outside the U.S. Department of Justice Building in Washington

Washington: A Chinese national formerly residing in Chesterfield, Missouri, was sentenced to 29 months in prison on Thursday followed by three years of supervised release and a USD 150,000 fine for conspiring to commit economic espionage.

Xiang Haitao, 44, pleaded guilty to the charge in January 2022, the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

According to court documents, Xiang conspired to steal a trade secret from The Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto, an internationally based company doing business in St. Louis, Missouri, for the purpose of benefitting a foreign government, namely the People's Republic of China (PRC).

"Xiang conspired to steal an important trade secret to gain an unfair advantage for himself and the PRC," said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

"The victim companies invested significant time and resources to develop this intellectual property. Economic espionage is a serious offense that can threaten U.S. companies' competitive advantage, and the National Security Division is committed to holding accountable anyone who steals trade secrets to benefit a foreign government."

Assistant Director Alan Kohler of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, said those who conspire to steal technology from US businesses and transfer it to China cause tremendous economic damage to the country.

"The government of China does not hesitate to go after the ingenuity that drives our economy. Stealing our highly prized technology can lead to the loss of good-paying jobs here in the United States, affecting families, and sometimes entire communities."

According to court documents, Xiang was employed by Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, where he worked as an imaging scientist.

Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed a digital, online farming software platform that was used by farmers to collect, store and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers.

According to the Justice Department, a critical component to the platform was a proprietary predictive algorithm referred to as the Nutrient Optimizer. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation considered the Nutrient Optimizer a valuable trade secret and their intellectual property.

"In June 2017, the day after leaving employment with Monsanto and The Climate Corporation, Xiang attempted to travel to China on a one-way airplane ticket. While he was waiting to board his flight, federal officials conducted a search of Xiang's person and baggage," the release said.

Investigators later determined that one of Xiang's electronic devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer. Xiang continued on to China where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Soil Science. Xiang was arrested when he returned to the United States in November 2019.