Mystery seeds: Don’t plant, don’t throw away
By ANDREW MCGINN
Just when 2020 couldn’t possibly get any weirder, a little padded envelope from Shenzhen, China, purporting to contain stud earrings arrived in Jack Bucklin’s mail in Cooper.
Bucklin didn’t order any earrings, and he certainly didn’t order what was actually inside the envelope — tiny seeds that, to the retired USDA soil conservationist, look like thistle seeds.
Bucklin also isn’t alone.
Untold packets of mysterious, unlabeled seeds are arriving in mailboxes across the United States from points in China and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
Jefferson police on Monday fielded their first report of someone receiving unsolicited seeds.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship responded Tuesday with official guidance on what to do with the unsolicited seeds: don’t open the seed packet, don’t plant the seed and don’t attempt to destroy the seeds, either.
State and national agricultural officials want to collect the seeds for analysis and proper disposal, fearing the packages contain an invasive plant species or a seed-borne disease not currently in the United States, either of which could wreak havoc on the nation’s ag industry.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is asking recipients to retain the packaging and report their finding by calling 515-281-5321.
In information forwarded to local media Tuesday from the Greene County Extension office, state entomologist and ag security coordinator Robin Pruisner said that some of the seeds appear to have been treated — seeds can be treated with insecticide and/or fungicide — but they’re unsure what the compounds are, or if they could be dangerous to human health.
The return address on Bucklin’s package was listed, mysteriously, as “North side of the west gate of South China Avenue, Longgang District, Shenzhen.”
State ag officials say the seeds could merely be part of what’s known as a brushing scam, in which people receive unsolicited items from an online seller who then posts false reviews of goods from “verified” customers.
Bucklin is more skeptical, deeming it a “biological attack.”
“It’s an attack on our agriculture,” he said.
During his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bucklin said China regularly attacked the department’s computers.
“They’re just trying anything,” he said.
Coincidentally, ag-rich Greene County has emerged as a particular hotspot in Iowa for the mystery seeds, according to Iowa State University Extension.
Thanks to his work with NRCS, Bucklin knows seeds and invasive plants — and he fears that someone out of thousands of recipients might actually plant them. More plausible, Bucklin said, is that a package is going to rip open, or the seeds will be carelessly discarded, allowing them to take root.
Invasive plants and animals aren’t exactly a new problem, but each fresh arrival poses its own threat to existing ecosystems as they crowd out native species.
Iowa is home to a variety of exotic flora and fauna, including musk thistle, which arrived in the U.S. from Eurasia in the 1850s. A single musk thistle plant is capable of producing up to 120,000 seeds that can travel for miles on the wind. Musk thistle seeds also remain viable in the soil for more than 10 years, making control difficult.
The emerald ash borer beetle arrived from Asia inside wood shipping materials and has gone on to destroy tens of millions of ash trees in 35 states since first being identified in southeastern Michigan in 2002. The beetle’s presence in Greene County was confirmed in 2017.
The 1970s and ’80s brought Asian carp — marked by their ability to leap 10 feet into the air and dive-bomb boaters — and zebra mussels to Midwestern rivers.
So far, no one has called Jefferson police to report being slapped by an Asian carp, but we still have five months left in 2020.