Sow­ing doubt The mys­tery of the seeds ‘posted from China’

The Guardian - - National - Eric Hi­laire ▲

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

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