June 10, 2023

So were the mystery seeds a Chinese bio-attack?

Roughly one week ago, Ed looked at the strange story of people all over the country receiving mysterious, unrequested packages of seeds in the mail. Many of the packages had what appeared to be Chinese characters on them, leading some observers to suspect that the Chinese Communist Party was up to some sort of nefarious shenanigans. Governments in every state were quick to issue warnings for people to not just go randomly planting the seeds in their gardens for fear of some sort of invasive species sprouting and further disrupting the natural balance of plants and animals in North America.

But were they really? Or was this just some sort of cheap marketing scam designed to gin up interest in a new seed company? There’s finally been some testing done on some of the packages of seeds. Rather than some form of bioweapons, the initial results suggest something far more mundane. (USA Today)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified 14 different kinds of seeds in the mysterious packages that appear to have been sent unsolicited from China to people around the country.

All 50 states have issued warnings about the packages some of which contain flowering plants like morning glory, hibiscus and roses, according to Osama El-Lissy, with the Plant Protection program of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. El-Lissy said other packages contain vegetables like cabbage and herbs including mint, sage, rosemary, and lavender.

“This is a just a subset of the samples we’ve collected so far,” he said Wednesday.

So we have morning glory, roses, lavender, mint and… cabbages? It’s not exactly adding up to an alien invasion at this point, is it? But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s entirely harmless. (Though it could still be nothing more than a cheap marketing ploy, as I suggested above.)

The Agriculture Department is still cautioning everyone against planting these seeds, however, and for good reason. They’ve only tested a tiny sample of the packages so far. The fact that different packages had different types of seeds in them suggests that there could still be other species out there in a smaller subset of the packages and that could represent a very real danger.

Keep in mind that kudzu came to the United States way back in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Rather than being snuck into the country by bioterrorists or accidentally stuck to some cargo containers, we actually welcomed this import from the Japanese. People started planting it all over the place, particularly in the south. And now it’s overrunning significant parts of the country and we are totally unable to get rid of it. When you introduce a new animal or plant species into an area where it has no natural predators to keep it under control, things can blow up in your face rather quickly.

And if we really want to go the full paranoia and science-fiction route, what if some of the more mundane looking seeds have been genetically modified? After all, this is China that we’re talking about. As we’ve been learning the hard way all year, they’re no strangers to novel lifeforms showing up in places ranging from laboratories to dinner tables.

I sincerely hope people are paying attention to this news and being smart about it. Are you really so hard up for seeds for your garden that you have to use random ones that arrive in the mail? Seeds are dirt cheap, people. (Pardon the pun.) And if they’re not labeled you don’t even know what you’ll be growing anyway. I regularly buy large bags of birdseed to feed our local feathered friends and even that’s had some repercussions. I now have a “crop” of millet growing around the edges of my property. Thankfully that’s not really an invasive species (and you can even grind it up for flour if you’re ambitious) but it’s still a pain in the backside while doing yardwork.

Be careful out there, folks. This whole episode may turn out to be nothing sinister, but why take the chance?

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