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The curious case of unsolicited seeds

Americans are receiving mysterious packages of seeds from China. Don’t plant them.

As if 2020 cannot get much stranger, residents in at least seven states are receiving unsolicited packages containing seeds that appear to have originated from China. 

The seeds – contained within white plastic packages that often are labeled as jewelry, and may have Chinese writing on them – have so far been sent to residents in Washington state, Louisiana, Kansas, Virginia, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio. 

In Kansas, the state Department of Agriculture was first notified July 23, says Heather Lansdowne, public information officer for the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA). Since then, the department has received "hundreds" of phone calls and emails from affected residents, Lansdowne says. 

“It’s an unusual situation,” she adds. 

Recipients are asked to neither plant the seeds nor open sealed packages. Instead, contact your state department of agriculture. 

Unsolicited seeds could be invasive species, could introduce diseases to local plants, or could be harmful to livestock. Invasive species wreak havoc on the environment, displace or destroy native plants and insects, and severely damage crops. 

In a public statement, the Washington State Department of Agriculture says unwanted distribution of the seeds is known as agricultural smuggling, and encourages recipients to report the packages and keep the packages intact until further instructions are received. The packages may be needed as evidence. 

In Whitehouse, Ohio, the local police department suggests the unusual packages are part of an online scam known as brushing, in which a vendor ships an inexpensive product, unsolicited, and the recipient submits a positive online review on the receiver’s behalf, under the guise of a verified owner.

“Although not directly dangerous, we would still prefer that people contact us to properly dispose of the seeds,” the Whitehouse police department says in a statement. 

While there may not be any nefarious intent with the seed shipments, Lansdowne says Kansas joins other states in wanting to minimize the risk of invasive seed species. She says that since multiple states have reported the issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over any investigation.  

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