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Seeds of Suspicion – A bizarre global mystery

August 24, 2020

Random packets of seeds from China dropping through British, Canadian & American letterboxes, to the horror of government scientists

 

As mysteries go, it’s one that has been sowing seeds of disquiet in gardens around the globe.

Tomatoes in Chatham, something looking suspiciously like cucumbers in Aberdeenshire, nasturtiums in North London; and that’s before you even get to the onions (or something like it) that landed on a doormat in Japan, or the entire gamut of assorted herbs and veg that have turned up across Canada, Australia and the U.S.

Not the actual vegetables, of course, but seeds. Lots and lots of seeds. The thorny issue at the root of this particular horticultural mystery is that none of the recipients of the seeds seems to have ordered them.

Instead, they have been dropping through letterboxes, unsolicited, typically in small plastic bags — sometimes unmarked, sometimes with a single label saying ‘cucumber’ or some other plant — contained within a white padded envelope (the type you might associate with an eBay or Amazon sale) all carefully packaged with a printed name and address label — creating a sense of bewilderment and fear.

One recipient of seeds was journalist Helen Minsky. The first packet arrived in April, the second a few weeks later, one marked China, bearing the description ‘decoration’ and one Malaysia, described as ‘corn poppy’, although on a label inside it says China. She is pictured above with the nasturtiums she grew from the unsolicited seeds

For one, the packets are often marked as ‘stud earrings’ or ‘educational toy’ — which they obviously aren’t.

Secondly, and it’s this that has prompted a flurry of panic among the gardeners of Britain: the postmarked country of origin is often China — but sometimes Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, even Uzbekistan. Given the current pandemic gripping the globe, it’s not difficult to see why the mystery has prompted some alarm.

Could foreign seeds, evading customs restraints, be carrying disease? Could this actually be seed warfare, a bid by someone with sinister intent to introduce an invasive triffid-like species to British shores, or is there some other nefarious intention?

In which case, how has the sender got hold of the recipients’ details? And what else do they know?

Conspiracy forums were abuzz with claims of poison and biological terrorism, with some even questioning whether there was a link between the seeds and coronavirus.

Defra (the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) is taking no chances. Its instructions are specific: put down the trowel, do NOT plant; do NOT put them in the bin (they could germinate in landfill and spread), but report them and post them to Defra immediately.

But should we be panicking? This week the Mail set out to investigate and found the tendrils of the seed invasion spreading the length and breadth of Britain.

In Chatham, Kent, Amy Spearman isn’t even contemplating eating the plump tomatoes growing on the four plants she planted at the edge of her garden a couple of months ago. They are green, but will soon be turning a rosy shade of red.

‘When they arrived in April the first thing I thought was that they must have been something I had ordered,’ says Amy, 31, a railway engineer with a 14-month-old son.

‘I’ve got all sorts growing in the garden, corn, peas, courgettes, butternut squash, 16 tomato plants and a polytunnel with chilli and cucumber — it’s the first year I’ve done it, but what with lockdown and being on maternity leave I thought it would stop me sitting around all day.’

In West Yorkshire, Carrie Lamb, 41, a mother-of-five, received a packet of the strangest ‘seeds’ she had ever seen back in May. Like miniature twigs, they arrived in a cellophane packet, inside a white padded envelope, postmarked Russia. She is pictured above with one year old son Koby

Having already ordered other seeds online, on eBay, via UK sellers, Amy wasn’t too perturbed about the first packet that arrived at the home she shares with her husband and son. She threw away the packaging and planted the seeds, which account for four of those 16 tomato plants.

But soon after she planted them out, the gardening forums she frequents online began to ripple with word of ‘the mystery seeds’.

Then three weeks ago a second envelope arrived, sent ‘China Post’ and apparently originating from the city of Guangzhou, in the Chinese province of Guangdong.

Under description of contents, it said ‘earring’ and inside was a small, clear plastic bag with a bundle of something resembling chilli seeds.

She says: ‘I don’t know what they are because they weren’t labelled, and I’m not planting them. By the time they arrived I had seen people talking on Facebook about receiving seeds from China and saying you shouldn’t plant them. I thought, damn, I already have!

‘I wonder if there could be something wrong with them, and I’m certainly not planting any more. I’m taking it seriously and will be sending the seeds off to Defra and I guess I certainly won’t be eating the tomatoes, I think I’m going to have to pull them out.

‘What worries me is how have they got my contact details? Someone out there has my confidential contact information.’

In West Yorkshire, Carrie Lamb, 41, a mother-of-five, received a packet of the strangest ‘seeds’ she had ever seen back in May. Like miniature twigs, they arrived in a cellophane packet, inside a white padded envelope, postmarked Russia.

‘I’m indigenous Canadian and to me they looked like sweet grass, which we use to smudge [purify] our skin. Then I saw the packaging said Russia and thought: ‘I can’t remember ordering anything from Russia.’

‘I started to ask around on Facebook and got all sorts of suggestions as to what they might be, someone said what if they were genetically modified, which got me worried, and then the story started emerging that this was a thing.

‘It’s all really weird. I didn’t want to do anything with the seeds, or put them in the bin, so I just left them on my kitchen windowsill.’

Another recipient of seeds was journalist Helen Minsky. The first packet arrived in April, the second a few weeks later, one marked China, bearing the description ‘decoration’ and one Malaysia, described as ‘corn poppy’, although on a label inside it says China. ‘I just thought I must have ordered them,’ she says.

‘I’d ordered some sweetpea seedlings on Amazon and then these came. I planted them in a pot and they have grown into what look like nasturtiums, with massive leaves. The second set of seeds I just tucked away and didn’t look at again until I heard this had been happening around the world.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating more than a month ago, and has had reports from all 50 states

‘Thankfully I put them in pots, not into the garden, but hopefully it’s nothing sinister. Various animals have been having a nibble, so if it is China trying to poison us, they have poisoned the insects!’

The Mail asked the experts at seed company Unwins to look at Helen’s seeds for us this week. The verdict from the lab?

‘The samples sent to Unwins were identified to be nasturtium and poppy seeds,’ said a spokesman.

Whether the seeds are completely innocuous remains unknown, since testing for disease takes longer. The spokesman adds: ‘Seeds from an unknown source may carry disease or be an invasive species that can damage our native plants.

‘If you do receive seeds unexpectedly we strongly advise to follow Defra guidelines not to plant them, and to get in touch with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

And it’s not just British homes being targeted: The U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating more than a month ago, and has had reports from all 50 states. Multiple agencies are now involved, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. Species identified include 14 varieties ranging from mustard to cabbage and rosemary.

But so far, no word of anything more sinister such as diseases, pests or hazardous material. So should British gardeners be worried?

The most likely explanation, say officials both in the UK and in the U.S., is that this is something known as a ‘brushing’ scam, in which sellers target unwitting recipients with unsolicited ‘free tat’ to boost their online profiles.

The crooks gather addresses from database leaks or other legitimate sales, then despatch worthless products, posting fake online reviews from bogus buyer accounts they set up, and artificially boosting sales.

As a ‘verified purchaser’ from the likes of Amazon, they get to give positive feedback. Most major e-commerce platforms have algorithms that rank and order sellers in relation to volume of sales and feedback, and glowing phoney reviews improve a seller’s online ratings, helping it to rise up online search engine results.

The un-ordered parcels are sent to perplexed Brits so that there is a paper trail if a seller is ever asked questions. There have been reports of hairbands or fake Ray-Ban sunglasses; sometimes, the packages are just empty boxes.

It costs the shippers next to nothing to send them because they take advantage of low-cost international postage rates.

U.S. researchers studied over 4,000 ‘brushers’ and found the crooks succeeded in inflating their sales ranking ten times faster than would happen through normal, honest selling activity.

Forbes magazine recently described ‘cross-border e-commerce’ as the ‘new Wild West’, a ‘place where anything goes’.

Brushing is technically illegal in China, and earlier this month the foreign ministry said the postmarks on the packages sent out were fake and encouraged Western countries to send them to China for investigation. Yet internet gardening forums are buzzing with chat about the mystery seeds, and the responses of seed recipients vary enormously.

There is Grahame Levy, an engineer in Aberdeenshire, who received a package in the post from Singapore marked as a gift, which contained seeds labelled ‘cucumber’ and ‘safflower’.

‘I’ve my own croft with lots of vegetables and stuff like that,’ he says. ‘These seeds arrived out of the blue three or four weeks ago and on the packet it says ‘gift’. I knew it was wrong and put the lot in the woodburner.’

‘There are places in the Lake District where the lakes are dying because of stuff that has been introduced that doesn’t come from this country. I think some people will have just been throwing these in the bin, which goes to landfill and then what happens? The only answer is to burn them.’

Faye Stevenson contacted Defra immediately when seeds arrived, marked as an ‘educational toy’ in a packet addressed to her 12-year-old son Ayden.

By coincidence, the packet arrived on the very day she had been reading news reports about the mystery. ‘At first I thought he must have ordered something online, but when I opened it I saw these tiny seeds, marked freesia’, she says.

‘My main worry was what if they had been coated in something nasty, so I put them to one side and washed my hands straight away, then I phoned Defra.’

Faye was particularly concerned about the fact it was her son’s details on the packaging.

‘He does buy little gadgets and gizmos on the shopping site Wish, using his Go Henry card, which he gets his pocket money on — but I’m very careful about his security online, even on his Xbox, so he can’t talk to strangers. Now I’m reluctant to let him do any online shopping. What database is my 12-year-old son on?

In the UK, Lisa Ward, senior scientist specialising in biosecurity at the Royal Horticultural Society, says: ‘With seeds coming in labelled as something like earrings, they are evading controls required to ensure plant health.

‘It is a huge biosecurity risk having seeds come in this way, they could be carrying unwanted pests and diseases and could also be seeds for an invasive species that we don’t want here. Either way it is a huge risk to our gardens, our environment and our crops.’

The importing of seeds makes it a requirement for all seed for planting from outside the EU (by which the UK is still covered, for now) to be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate. A plant health certificate, in other words.

Over at APHA, a spokesman says they have received 150 packages so far, with more than 1,000 cases reported. Testing of the seeds — including DNA analysis — is currently under way to ascertain if they are any invasive species, and if they contain any plant diseases that could be a biosecurity risk to the UK.

Species identified so far include lettuce, parsley, coriander, carrot, corncockle and tomato — alongside general plant matter such as soil and further plant debris.

A spokesman says: ‘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 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.’

As to whether recipients of unsolicited packages should worry about their personal data, Digital Privacy Expert Ray Walsh, of ProPrivacy, says: ‘Anybody who receives a package that they have not purchased should change the passwords on all of their accounts straight away to ensure they cannot be used in this way.

‘So far, we haven’t seen evidence of brushing leading to crimes like identity theft and bank fraud. However, if you do receive a package, it is advised that you update all your passwords, particularly on shopping platforms. In addition, you should monitor your bank accounts and credit or debit cards to be sure that there isn’t any unauthorised activity.’

So is the global seed mystery evidence the day of the triffids is near? Probably not. But, just to be on the safe side, don’t put your seeds in the bin, contact: planthealth.info@apha.gov.uk.

LINK

From → World Watch

One Comment
  1. Mary permalink

    Interesting material!

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