The case of the Chinese "mystery seeds" is pretty much solved

You probably remember that back during the summer we were wrestling with something of a mystery. People all over the country were suddenly receiving packages of mysterious, unlabeled seeds in the mail, most appearing to have come from China. Initially, nobody knew where they came from or what sorts of plants they might germinate. Concerns were raised as to whether the seeds represented some sort of invasive species that could wreak havoc on American agriculture, along with plant and animal life in general. Despite warnings from the Department of Agriculture to not mess around with them, one farmer eventually planted some but it only produced Asian squash that was already being grown here anyway. And yet, the packets contained a wide variety of types of seeds, so that didn’t answer all of the questions.

An investigation was undertaken and it’s taken a while, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forestry seems to have arrived at a conclusion. Roughly 5,000 species of seeds have been identified, with origins in more than 40 countries. But this is no longer looking like some sinister plot by the Chinese Communist Party to take us over in some Little Shop of Horrors scenario. Instead, they’ve identified two different scenarios where these random seeds were being mailed out. (The Advocate)

One avenue was that the seeds weren’t unsolicited but ordered online by consumers who were unaware that the seeds would actually be sent from a foreign country that wouldn’t be in compliance with U.S. import requirements, said Osama El-Lissy, the deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Plant Protection and Quarantine Program.

The second tranche of unknown Chinese seeds came as part of an internet “brushing” scam, El-Lissy said.

It appears that at least some of the deliveries were mix-ups on the part of both the consumer and the supplier. Some sales portal was probably offering the seeds at an attractive price, but not checking to make sure they were in compliance with the laws regarding importing agricultural products. When the packages wound up arriving from China, the buyer didn’t realize that it was the product they had ordered. That sounds rather unlikely to me, but I suppose I’ll take the USDA’s word for it.

The other, more plausible scenario was one that some savvy readers were suggesting when the seeds first began arriving. The internet “brushing” scam is apparently a common practice employed by shady vendors. They create fake customer accounts and send inexpensive, unrequested products to them to register what looks like a valid “transaction.” That allows them to write fake, positive reviews and drive up their popularity ratings online.

Assuming that’s all there was to this, it’s turned out to be much ado about nothing. While there were a dizzying variety of seeds being shipped, the USDA is saying that there weren’t any invasive “weeds” among them, nor did they record significant incidents of diseases with the shipments. And judging by the size of the crop of squash that one farmer wound up with, they might have even been useful in some cases.

It’s hard not to be a little disappointed with the outcome, though. Everyone loves a mystery and at least for a while there, this looked like it might have been a good one.

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