In late July, America was briefly enthralled with “Unsolicited Seeds from China,” which started showing up in mailboxes in all 50 states. These mystery seeds prompted warnings from the USDA, which said people should not plant them, and should instead alert their state agricultural authority and mail them to the USDA or their local officials.
Many Americans heeded this advice. Many more decidedly did not.
According to documents obtained by Motherboard from state departments of agriculture, at least hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans planted the seeds.
Since the seed story originally broke, I have been obsessed with learning more. To do this, I filed 52 freedom of information requests; one with each of the departments of agriculture (or their state-level equivalent) in all 50 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico. I also filed requests with the USDA and several of its labs. Thousands of pages of emails, spreadsheets, reports, and documents, as well as audio voicemail recordings, have been trickling in for the last month, and they have been enlightening in many ways.
Based on documents I’ve read, the scale of the mystery seed operation was much larger than I had originally suspected and than was originally reported. Conservatively, it is safe to say that tens of thousands of Americans received what they perceived to be Chinese mystery seeds in July. Some states, like North Carolina, had more than 1,000 people contact the department of agriculture having received unsolicited seeds. Others, like New Mexico, had roughly 100 recorded seed receivers. Many of these seed receivers, regardless of location, panicked.
"About a month ago, I did receive seeds from China. I guess China because it looks like Chinese writing. I thought, 'Oh cool, maybe Burgess seeds or one of the seed companies sent me some seeds.' And, umm, like a dumbass, I planted them, not knowing there was a problem," a woman in New Mexico said in a voicemail left with the state's department of agriculture in late July. "And now, I've been battling this for a couple weeks. Now, where I planted them, and I remember where I planted them, everything that's in the garden where I planted them are having a hard time and are starting to die … I really don't know what to do at this point, so could somebody call me back and give me a little bit of direction about this? I know I'm a dumbass."
Calls like this were not unusual. Some people ate the seeds, according to the documents. Some people called 911. Emergency meetings and calls were held. The USDA’s Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance group (SITC), Customs and Border Protection, and the FBI began investigating.
“Yes,” David Stebbings, an officer with the SITC, emailed when alerted by authorities in New Hampshire about the seeds, “it’s starting to explode.”
In the initial days of this mystery, the agricultural departments of many states were overwhelmed with emails and calls from residents who were unsure of what they’d gotten in the mail and what they should do with the seeds.
“Our call center was completely overwhelmed with calls,” Brad Deacon, director of the office of legal affairs for Michigan’s Department of Agriculture, said. “There were 5-600 Facebook posts, direct messages …”
“People were planting them and have planted them,” Jennifer Holton, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, told Motherboard in a phone call. “Our plant person was not able to keep up with the calls.”
According to a spreadsheet compiled by Michigan, 677 people filed official complaints with the state about the receipt of unsolicited seeds; 30 reported planting them. “I planted them in my hydroponic system in my home, I thought they were the strawberry seeds I ordered from Amazon. They turned Black and green mold, so I threw them away,” one person wrote. “If I had known these seeds were going to originate from China, I would not have purchased them from Amazon. I am still waiting on at least 4 other orders of seeds. Will burn them if they come.”
A spreadsheet of plant receivers compiled by North Carolina shows that in that state alone, nearly 1,300 people reported getting the seeds. About 60 of those people planted them.
“Received many shipments. Planted some and clover came up,” one report says. “She indicated that she planted the bulbs,” another states. “Planted one pack and ate the oregano that grew. Has some left,” says yet another. One seed recipient noted that they “salted ground” after planting some of their seed packet.
Not all of the seeds were unsolicited. Some people ordered seeds, got what they paid for, planted them, then became concerned when the Chinese mystery seeds articles began popping up.
"I have purchased some seeds from china. I have only planted one. Although with the rain and wind, it spread through the backyard. Which is really wired since it only was 50 pieces. I plsnted the pearls chorophytum. Please come and take a look," a New Mexico resident wrote.
Officials in that state weren't sure what to do: "I need your guidance for this one since they're planted, and spreading?," two state department of agriculture employees wrote to each other.
In New Hampshire officials dealt with hundreds of emails and calls from concerned residents.
“I received this package from China. Unfortunately I through the envelope away. It said they were stud earrings. I had ordered onions from amazon and thought they got them from China. The more I looked at them they don’t even come close to onions I just figured they sent the wrong thing. No I didn’t plant or open the package. What should I do with them,” a resident wrote in an email.
In one exchange, a state entomologist and a plant health director discuss how they should categorize and respond to a person who said they had eaten the seeds.
“I’m adding them to my database. Of course, there doesn’t yet exist field to indicate that someone ATE the seeds,” the plant health director wrote. “I don’t know if they also ate other seeds or the packaging,” the entomologist responds.
New Hampshire also got emails from cops, who said that they were getting calls from “concerned residents” and didn’t know what to do. Within a few days of the seeds getting media attention, an emergency call was held by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with state agricultural officials in which it attempted to, among other things, assess whether actually tracking all of the seed packets was “manageable” due to the “very high volume.”
“Is there an end to this situation in sight?” an FAQ in a readout from that call asked. “It is too early to determine whether the situation is expanding, leveling off, or decreasing,” they wrote.
While scanning through thousands of pages of documents about the seeds, it became clear that, for at least the first few weeks, no one had any idea who sent the seeds, where they came from (other than “China”), or the goal of the seed mailing campaign.
Eventually, the official line became that this was a “brushing” campaign, in which items of small value are sent to people whose online accounts have been compromised, or are sent to people as a "gift." In order to leave a positive review from a "verified buyer" (which is weighted higher because the person nominally bought and used the product), you need to have actually bought or received an item, so by receiving seeds, reviews from that account or name will be weighted higher.
The "brushing" idea is still what USDA and other agencies are saying, but, at least in the emails I’ve reviewed there’s very little talk about how the scam worked or why it happened. This campaign also seems to be much larger than any other known brushing campaign or any other seed mailing campaign.
CBP says that it intercepts 15,000 seeds “from all sources worldwide” in a year, according to an information sheet I obtained from New Hampshire. It is obvious from the number of complaints filed to just a handful of states that this campaign targeted far more than 15,000 people; the number who even bothered to fill out an online form or call the authorities seems to be significantly higher than that.
Some of my freedom of information requests have been rejected by states who cite an active law enforcement investigation. We know that the FBI, CBP, and USDA are all still investigating.
(As an aside, this project has shown me the wide variability of freedom of information responses across agencies and states, which have their own individual FOI laws. Some states wholly rejected my request citing active investigations, others asked me to narrow it significantly, some heavily redacted personal information. New Mexico, meanwhile, sent me more than a gigabyte of files, including unredacted voicemails, emails, and photographs.)
We also know, based on analysis from a Utah plant lab that was included in some of the documents, that many of the seeds have been identified and do not seem harmful.
“Our seed lab has identified the following: rose, amaranth (not Palmer), 2 mints, False Horse Balm, Self Heal, Lespedeza and Sweet Potato. Our APHIS-PPQ plant health director wants us to destroy the seeds by sterilization or incineration,” the person who analyzed them wrote.
A similar analysis in New Mexico found that some of the seeds were "noxious weeds" that exist in huge numbers in the United States but which people are banned from planting in many states. Those include oxeye daisy, and hedge bindweed. New Mexico also identified onion, cucumber, tomato, radish, peppergrass, alfalfa, corn, lettuce, hollyhock, and spearmint seeds.
The USDA also gave states an official guide to destroying the seeds, which included baking them in an oven, suffocating them in two ziplock trash bags, and soaking them in bleach. If the seeds were planted, the USDA is currently advising people not to plant anything in that area for at least one year, and to destroy any plants that happen to grow there naturally. Another officially endorsed disposal method is encasing the seeds entirely in duct tape.
Amazon announced over the weekend that it would ban all international plant sales.
One thing is clear to me, from reading these documents. American people do not seem particularly well-prepared for scams of this nature.
The emails between public officials and scientists, who were dealing with a difficult situation, seem efficient, professional, and appropriately cautious. But communication from the general public is concerning. People planted seeds even when expressly told not to. Hundreds of people had no idea whether they had ever ordered seeds, or how to check. Some people called 911. Others ate the seeds. Others ordered something specific, got what they ordered from who they ordered it from, then still panicked. Others were furious they had to pay for postage to send the seeds to the government. From one recipient in North Carolina: “I did not receive seeds. I received a suspicious package from China with a spoon and a fork in it my concerns are that it is full of Covid.”