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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has identified 14 varieties of mysterious seeds purportedly sent from China to U.S. citizens who didn’t order them. The known varieties include rosemary, sage, mint and hibiscus. The common herbs hardly seem a threat, but APHIS maintains its warning—reiterated by all 50 states—that recipients of unsolicited seed shipments should not plant them.
“Our main concern is the potential for these seeds to introduce damaging pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agriculture,” APHIS said in a thorough statement on the seed situation, posted on the USDA’s website. Osama El-Lissy, an official with APHIS, said the 14 seeds represent “just a subset of the samples we have collected so far.”
The strange seeds began appearing in Americans’ mailboxes at least two months ago, often arriving in packages marked as containing jewelry. One man in Arkansas planted the seeds he received and nurtured them to growth. He then reported the incident to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture once authorities issued the public warnings. Local authorities have since dug up the offending plant.
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Reports say the majority of these mysterious seed packets have been shipped from China, although China foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said last week that the China Post shipping labels found on the packets had been forged. Wang said China Post “prohibits seeds from conveyance by post” and had requested the U.S. Postal Service “send those fake packages to China for investigation.”
It’s not only the U.S. on the receiving end of this bizarre scheme, and it isn’t always China that’s marked as the country of origin. A woman in the U.K. and another in Canada received seeds purporting to be from Singapore. Meanwhile, a woman in New Zealand was sent seeds reportedly from Zambia. New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries intercepted the seeds before they arrived, replacing them with a note warning the woman not to import seeds illegally.
Most countries regulate the import of seeds and other organic material, to protect against invasive species. In the U.S., gardeners have previously been blamed for unleashing Japanese knotweed and butterfly bush on American soil, while the U.K.’s Animal and Plant Health Agency intercepts around 1,000 plant-related shipments a year.
The latest batch of mysterious seed parcels has received more media attention than normal, perhaps due to the deterioration of China-U.S. relations. Some pundits have wondered aloud whether the seed shipments could be an act of state-sponsored ecoterrorism. The USDA, however, says there’s no evidence to suggest the fraudulent packages are anything other than a “brushing scam.”
Brushing is when a seller on an e-commerce site, such as Amazon, boosts their ranking by falsifying reviews and sales. Mailing cheap products to unsuspecting customers is one way to do that. The practice is common in China.
Jack Ma, founder of China’s largest e-commerce site Alibaba, has said that when his eBay-alternative started, he and the other employees did a similar thing: listing their own items and selling them to each other, in order to make the website seem more active.
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