Sowing doubt The mystery of the seeds ‘posted from China’
There’s not much Jan Goward does not grow in her small garden in Eastbourne. “I grow everything,” she says. “I’ve got the exotics: the aubergines, the chillies …” But some mystery seeds she received in the post this week – ostensibly all the way from Singapore, marked on the packet as stud earrings – will not be joining them.
“I haven’t got a clue what they are, so there’s no way,” says Goward. “I wouldn’t ever plant something that I didn’t know the origins of.”
Goward’s mystery seeds are among potentially thousands of shipments reported this week in the US, Canada, Europe and New Zealand, prompting biosecurity concerns and international investigations into their origins.
On Tuesday, US agriculture officials issued warnings about the spate of “suspicious, unsolicited” seeds, reported in more than a dozen states, apparently sent from China.
Florida alone has recorded more than 630 instances, with one man claiming to have received three separate shipments in a week. A woman in Texas said she received seeds in April and planted them – but with no results.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has asked recipients not to plant the seeds as it works to uncover their source. In Britain, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is investigating reports of similar shipments across the country.
APHA said: “Biosecurity is of vital importance and we have robust checks in place to protect our plants and wildlife, including for online plant sales. We are currently investigating packages of seeds marked as ‘ear studs’ sent to people in the UK. Anyone who has received such seeds should not plant them and instead report them to us.”
Shipments have also been reported in European countries as well as New Zealand, where a parcel claiming to contain a “toy” arrived in Auckland from Zambia.
After posting a photograph in a Facebook group for UK gardeners, Goward was contacted by another member who said she had received “exactly the same seeds, the same package, at the same time. And she was in Portugal.”
Photographs shared by recipients and authorities appear to show many varieties. Some parcels have been marked with Chinese characters or “China Post” and as containing “rose stud” earrings, presumably to elude biosecurity checks or fees.
The most likely explanation, put forward by USDA, is that the seeds are low-cost collateral in a so-called “brushing scam”, in which online sellers send people unsolicited items to generate a transaction to support fake reviews for their businesses.
CNA reported on Wednesday that seeds apparently sent from Taiwan to Canada were in fact transshipped via Taiwan on behalf of a client in a third origin. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said the address labels from China had been forged and that China Post has asked the US Postal Service to return packages for investigation. The seed shipments are addressed by name, indicating at least a data breach.
Another theory is that the seeds are of an invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, an attempt to introduce pathogens or disease.
Gerard Clover, head of plant health at the Royal Horticultural Society, says it is hard to comment without knowing the seeds’ species or origins. “Anything that has the ability to grow has the potential to be a threat,” he said. But Clover downplayed the suggestion of “bioterrorism”, the use of plant pests and diseases to disrupt trade and economy.
A bag of seeds sent without explanation to someone in Ohio