Unsolicited packages stamped from China

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I tell you if it isn’t one thing going on that we have to deal with in this crazy world that we live in today it’s something else. Over the past couple weeks or so we have seen yet another of these things which is actually very concerning at least from an agricultural standpoint anyway. 

Recently the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) along with state departments of agriculture in states all around the nation have received numerous reports from citizens and home owners who have received unsolicited packages stamped from China which contain seeds. Again, before we get overly concerned, these are packets of seeds which were not ordered through nurseries or seed catalogs (in other words packages of seeds that you have no knowledge about or have not ordered are the ones in question). So how much harm could a package of “mystery” seed actually do? Specialists with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System agree that unsolicited seed packets which are being delivered through the United States Post Office in Alabama and across the country could pose a very real threat to native ecosystems and possibly even to human health.

In normal situations ALL seed and plant shipments into the United States would be subject to inspection and quarantine procedures as outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture. Just for example, in 2017 the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspected and cleared more than 17,000 shipments containing in excess of 1.6 BILLION plant units and close to 1.900 tons of seeds while intercepting 817 quarantined pests including potentially damaging insects, plant diseases, and weeds. It is currently believed that the recent “mystery” seed shipments are an attempt to avoid inspection which is a form of agricultural smuggling and is treated very seriously.

The packages are fairly easy to recognize. First of all, always be suspicious of receiving any packages whether seeds or anything else for that matter that you have no knowledge about or did not order. The mystery packages are usually stamped or marked as being from China. I have frequently seen this marking on the upper left hand side of the package; however, it could be anywhere on the packing label. The packages are also usually misleading as to their actual contents. It seems to be very common to label them jewelry or other such things (this is yet another attempt to avoid potential USDA inspection).

The first most immediate threat from these seed packages is the potential to introduce potentially invasive pests into our natural ecosystems and to agricultural production areas. These seeds could contain invasive weed species such as cogongrass, kudzu, or any of a number of other invasive noxious weeds. In recent years studies have indicated that invasive species have caused over $120 billion in damage annually.

Our plant disease experts also point out that these uninspected plant seeds could also be harboring plant diseases. There are many plant diseases that can be spread through infected seeds. Diseases can be carried inside the seed or even on the seed coat.  Such pest problems include fungal diseases, bacterial diseases, viral diseases, and even nematodes all of which can affect plants. Once a disease pathogen gets introduced into your garden, flower bed, or agricultural field it can persist for many years.

If potentially invasive weeds and plant diseases were not enough, it is also a good way to introduce invasive insects. Many insect species can survive the seed storage and shipping process as either larvae or else as eggs which will hatch out and mature later. It is all of these potential problems that makes it necessary for us to have the inspection and quarantine procedures in place that we currently have.

So if you are one of the “lucky” recipients of one of these seed shipments, what should you do? The first and perhaps most important thing is do not open or certainly do not plant the seeds if you have already opened your package. Also do not simply dispose of the package in the garbage or dumpster. Keep the seed package and all the shipping materials that came with it. These are being collected both for study to determine exactly what the seeds contain as well as for evidence for potential prosecution for agricultural smuggling. The Alabama Department of Agriculture has set up an on-line reporting system to report seed shipments. That website is www.agi.alabama.gov/reportseeds. Once reported they will follow up with you with specific instructions on what to do with the seed packages. If you need further information or instructions, you can also call the ADAI’s compliance section at 334-240-7304.

Currently there is not any specific information indicating that these seed shipments are anything other than a “brushing” scam where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews in order to boost sales of other more expensive items.