By the time Carolyn had a second child, a son, Robert had transformed himself into the family's stable breadwinner. In 2009, three years after he started at DBN, Robert had enough for a down payment on a five-bedroom house in a nice part of Boca Raton, Florida.
The new house had blush-colored paint and a neat tiled roof, and it looked out on a cul-de-sac dotted with basketball hoops and palm trees. He and Carolyn joined a local Chinese Christian church and settled into a rhythm with their children. Carolyn became a U.S. citizen. Robert never bothered to apply. Giving up his Chinese passport would have made travel to Beijing more complicated.
Their house was walking distance from two golf courses and a country club, and the elegant office building where he rented a suite on behalf of DBN offered a view of a second country club. Working for a large agricultural corporation, he had the whole package: nice house, supportive community, and, when he wasn't traveling around the Midwest, plenty of free time for tennis, chess matches, and gardening.
Determined to prove his worth at work and show that he deserved the job he had won through nepotism, Robert happily learned about the pork industry and the business of sourcing animal feed. He worked closely with Mo Yun, who had a PhD in veterinary science and oversaw DBN's research and technology division. At first, his only regret was not joining DBN sooner. But that didn't last.
• • •
THE RISKY TRIPS that Robert and other DBN employees made to Midwestern fields had their origins in a single problem: China didn't produce enough grain to feed its people. Like other Chinese agricultural companies, DBN depended on a steady flow of imported corn and soy for its animal feed business. That made its executives, and Chinese leaders more generally, vulnerable to the whims of foreign suppliers. An increase in U.S. corn prices could have a direct impact on Chinese food security—and on DBN's profits.
Shao Genhuo, Robert's brother-in-law, had founded DBN in a Beijing apartment in 1993 with less than three thousand dollars in capital. As China grew wealthier and people ate more meat—braised pork belly, Peking duck, cumin-spiced beef—demand for grain-based animal feed surged. The Chinese central government helped out with its campaign to "modernize" people's diets with meat produced on large industrial farms, and Shao, who was the son of farmers, became wealthy. That had been enough for a while. Then the farmer's son watched as others' riches accumulated at a rate far faster than his. The company's margins could be even higher, Shao saw, if the company went into business growing corn itself.
In 2001, he created a subsidiary to focus on seed breeding. In Chinese the company was called Jinse Nonghua, which means Golden Agriculture. Kings Nower was an awkward anglicization of that name, and in choosing it, Shao and other executives evidently did not consider whether it had cachet for a Western ear. The goal was not to reach U.S. farmers, though. It was to dominate developing world markets—starting with China.
Despite the Chinese government's best efforts to give local companies an advantage, farmers still tended to favor international players like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. A few breakthrough seed lines might allow DBN and Kings Nower to edge out the foreign competition in China. And yet success was far from guaranteed. There were thousands of Chinese seed companies—by one count 8,700—and none of them had successfully managed to create seed lines that rivaled those of the international seed outfits. Developing an elite seed line required a good supply of inbred seed lines, which most Chinese companies didn't have, and the process took years and demanded both talent and money.
Kings Nower shared an office with its parent company in Beijing, and the two companies' operations were mostly indistinguishable. Dr. Li was put in charge of the seed subsidiary. Robert's boss had a peasant's face, with a prominent mole on his right cheek, and a peasant's coarse humor. He was prone to rash ideas, and not long after Robert started working at DBN, he dreamed up a shortcut that avoided years of research. With Robert's help, Kings Nower would swipe top-notch seeds from American seed companies and then reverse engineer the seed lines.
Robert knew that this was illegal under U.S. law, and he made his discomfort clear early on. When he and his sister began talking of targeting American seed lines, Robert wrote Mo Yun that he needed to be careful in order to "drive to somewhere unseen." She agreed. It was, of course, her family's safety that was on the line—not just that of her brother but that of her husband as well. But then Mo Yun cut back on her work with DBN to spend more time with her children. That left Dr. Li fully in charge of the seed operation. Wang Lei, Kings Nower's vice president, mostly deferred to him on business decisions.
Dr. Li sought the components for one hundred seed lines. In some cases, he wanted as many as five thousand samples of a single strain of corn. Robert pleaded with him that a hundred varieties were too many. Although reverse engineering the seeds was theoretically quicker than developing them from scratch, the process of re-creating even one seed line still could take years. But Dr. Li didn't listen. So Robert shipped thousands of seeds back to China, then lived in fear that they would be seized en route by customs officials. He flew from Florida to Iowa and back, wasting time he could have spent with his children or tending the mango and avocado trees in his backyard. Dr. Li always wanted more samples. Robert could send two thousand seeds from a particular seed line to China and still it wouldn't be enough.
This excerpt ends on page 16 the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller.