photo by Flickr user grace_kat
The trickle of news reports became a flood of confusion as mysterious packets of seeds started turning up at homes in all 50 states and Canada, and in Europe and New Zealand too.
Many, if not all, of the unordered seeds seemed to come from China. But what were they, and why were they being sent around a world that was already dealing with a pandemic whose source seemed to be the same place? Was it a passive-aggressive biological reply to the global opprobrium being heaped on Beijing for its security crackdown in Hong Kong? Or could it have been a response to President Donald Trump for blaming COVID-19 on the “Chinese virus”? If it was this sort of reaction, did it come from China’s government, or merely from some energized consumers of mainland China’s state-controlled media?
Nope. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has analyzed the seeds and, thus far, they are a seemingly benign, if diverse, assortment of typical garden plantings, ranging from flowers to vegetables and herbs. In a way, that was fitting. That’s because these garden seeds are most likely part of a garden-variety internet fraud called “brushing.”
Brushing: as in brushing up a vendor’s online reputation by generating inflated sales and fictitious positive reviews. This helps a vendor get better placement in the all-important search engine results generated by online sales platforms.
The vendors are not necessarily selling seeds or other garden supplies, either. In fact, they probably are not. The seeds were a logical choice because they are inexpensive, compact and lightweight. The vendor might be claiming to have sold and shipped a high-value item, like a camera or a case of toilet paper. Nobody wants to send thousands of expensive but unordered items to recipients who are perfectly entitled, under Federal Trade Commission rules, to keep them without paying. And bulky items like paper goods cost a lot more money to ship than a packet of seeds.
Despite their seemingly innocuous roots, the mystery seeds still had to be handled as a potential biohazard. The USDA has urged anyone who received them not to plant them and to alert the relevant officials in their state. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a similar warning. So did the United Kingdom’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. Officials feared that the seed varieties themselves could get out of control and become invasive species, like the former ornamental and forage planting imported (deliberately) from Japan, kudzu. Kudzu gained a fearsome (some say overrated) reputation for its ability to overrun a Southern landscape.
Or the seed mixes could have contained undiscovered seeds, fungi, viruses or bacteria that might devastate local agriculture. This is not an unfounded concern. Scientists around the globe are in a race to fight the insect-borne bacteria that causes citrus greening, which is now threatening groves from Asia and Oceania to North and South America. A fungus known as Tropical Race 4 is threatening to wipe out banana plantations across Latin America, where it arrived last year. The infection previously attacked banana growers in Malaysia, Indonesia and China. The threat to global banana crops is magnified because a single, susceptible variety of banana – the Cavendish – is by far the most widely grown and consumed commercial banana in the world.
So those innocent-looking seeds had to be handled with care. Inevitably, some will find their way into American soil, in spite of these precautions. Chances are they won’t do any harm, beyond what consumers may suffer from dealing with unethical online vendors, but you never know. Sometimes big problems can grow from very tiny seeds.