About a month ago, people across Canada, the United States and Taiwan started finding mysterious and unsolicited packages full of seeds in their mailboxes. So many people, in fact, that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued a statement:
“Unauthorized seeds could be the seeds of invasive plants, or carry plant pests, which can be harmful when introduced into Canada,” it said. “These species can invade agricultural and natural areas, causing serious damage to our plant resources.”
Authorities suggested that the seeds were likely coming from China as part of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture referred to as a “brushing scam”: a practice where sellers send unsolicited packages to random addresses, and then post fraudulent “verified reviews”, in order to boost their online rating. Testing showed up a bunch of different seed varieties from a range of samples, including mustard, cabbage, mint, lavender and rose.
It’s not entirely clear whether anyone ended up planting the seeds. But now they’ve started showing up in Australia too.
The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) revealed that 36 packages containing unidentified seeds had arrived at addresses across all states and territories over the past five weeks—most of them from China, Taiwan and Malaysia—sparking fears of a biosecurity threat that could wreak havoc on the nation’s natural environment and farm industries.
A DAWE spokesperson confirmed to VICE News that the department is currently investigating the matter, and urged anyone who happens to find unexpected seeds in their mail to avoid planting them or throwing them in the garbage.
“Secure the seeds and immediately report it to the department,” they said. “Seeds that do not meet Australia’s biosecurity import conditions … could be an exotic, noxious or invasive species, or be carrying harmful plant pathogens.”
The packets were predominantly sent in mail arriving from China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. All of the seeds were unidentifiable, according to the spokesperson, but investigations are ongoing. Detector dogs, X-rays and biosecurity officers have also been deployed at international mail centres in the hope of detecting any potential threats before they enter the country.
There are concerns that foreign seeds could carry invasive species or harmful plant diseases into Australia, causing potentially billions of dollars worth of damage to the country’s farm and gardening sectors. But it’s still not known who, exactly, is sending the seeds—or why.
"I'm very curious as to the motive behind it, because neither here nor in any of the overseas reports has anyone been able to explain why this is happening, [or] where they are coming from," Osman Mewett, chief executive of industry group the Australian Seed Federation (ASF), told the ABC. "There are a few conspiracy theories out there, but I really haven't seen anything concrete as to why this would be happening.
"There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason about who is receiving these packages."
Predictably, the mysterious seed drops have triggered a number of online conspiracy theories—including that they are a subtle taunt from the Chinese Communist Party, and a symbol of the seeds they’ve sown in Western democratic countries around the world. Authorities still think it’s probably just brushing—which, according to the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) description of the practice, makes sense.
“Often, the items received are lightweight and inexpensive to ship, such as ping pong balls, or more recently, face masks or seeds from China,” the organisation writes. “The companies, usually foreign, third-party sellers that are sending the items are simply using your address that they discovered online.”
Anyone in Australia who receives unsolicited seeds in the mail is being encouraged to report it directly to DAWE.
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