Flurry of unrequested seed packets exposes America's lack of ag biosecurity

Most of America's ag websites and major news outlets reported this week on the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of seed packets from China arriving in peoples' mailboxes — but were never ordered by the recipients.

July 30, 2020 By Jerry Carlson — Whatever the motive, the surge of seed reveals that America's biosecurity defenses are virtually porous against imported microbes, invasive species and other biological agents. 

 Seeds can internally harbor a wide array of bacterial, fungal and viral organisms. For example, ag consultants have long been concerned that seed corn can carry the bacteria Clavibacter michiganensis nebraskensis, the cause of Goss's bacterial wilt in corn.

Hopefully, USDA agencies will be checking for any such biologicals in the wide array of unwanted seed species currently showing up in American mailboxes.  

Update August 4:  Today's Wall Street Journal reports: “We are working closely with [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] to intercept illegally imported seed packages,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re also working with other federal authorities, the U.S. Postal Service, express carriers, and online marketplaces to stop future deliveries.”

 

Example of unrequested seed packet

 USDA, FBI and other federal agencies say the unrequested seed is probably a merchandising scam called "brushing." A paid scammer sends out merchandise to an address, then writes a favorable online review posing as the "verified buyer." A spate of favorable reviews for merchandise raises the seller's ratings on websites. 

The current Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that more than ever, the world is an open biosphere. Back in the 1950s, one of my jobs paying my way through Iowa State was picking tomatoes and other crops at the Plant Introduction Farm south of Ames, Iowa. This was a quarantine station for seed species introduced from outside the United States. Careful protocols precluded any "escape" of germ plasm until the plants could be proven safe and useful. 

U.S. customs agents still screen incoming travelers to block fruit, plants and other ag-related products from entering the country. But international postage and parcel-service shipments of live biological products easily penetrate national boundaries.

We've noted earlier that food safety experts in China are urging their government to strengthen biosecurity measures. It's probably time for such a review by American agencies. Today, we've seen several e-mailed exchanges between scientific observers who report than variants of the SARS-Cov-2 virus have been found in species such as mink and fish-farmed European Dover sole.

International online commerce, container shipping and jet travel can overwhelm biological barriers today. More than ever, your ultimate personal health defense against "novel" organisms is precisely what we've so often urged: A robust immune system. That depends on healthy, toxin-free food — which in turn depends on healthy, toxin-free soil. That last responsibility is yours alone.

Anyway... Have a good day!

Update August 13: USDA officials have found weed seeds and invasive insects in some of the thousands of seed packets turned in by recipients.  So far, we haven't heard of any analytical reports of microbes in or on the seed packets.

Update September 6:  The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon.com will ban all seed and plant sales from overseas sellers into the United States. U.S. government labs have found some disease organisms in the seed packets.