Amazon has since placed a ban on shipping international seeds into the U.S.

By Jelisa Castrodale
September 14, 2020
Advertisement

Earlier this month, Amazon informed sellers outside the United States that the would no longer be allowed to sell or ship seeds to the U.S., nor could U.S. residents import any seeds from outside the country's borders. The company also quietly removed the listings for seeds and seed products from some foreign sellers, and changed its official public rulebook to reflect these new policies. 

“Moving forward, we are only permitting the sale of seeds by sellers who are based in the U.S.," an Amazon spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal, adding that any sellers who don't abide by the new restrictions could be booted from the platform entirely. A spokesperson for online shopping platform Wish told the outlet that it would no longer allow its merchants to sell any seeds on its website, period.  

smolaw11/Getty Images

The two companies tightened their restrictions after tens of thousands of people in all 50 states have reported receiving unsolicited packages of "mystery seeds" in the mail this summer. In July, a Utah woman posted on Facebook that she had received two small envelopes from China that were both labeled "stud earrings." Instead, the packages contained two small baggies filled with seeds. More than 40 people responded to her post, reporting that they'd also gotten strange seeds in the mail and didn't know what to do about it. 

By early August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the FBI were investigating the mystery seeds, which had been shipped to residents in every single state. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) typed up a lengthy FAQ about the weird situation, advising anyone who had received seeds to save the mailing envelope and the packaging material, and to contact either APHIS or their state's plant regulatory officials about what to do next. APHIS also warned everyone not to plant the seeds, but that message seemed to have been lost: a lot of people planted the seeds. 

VICE conducted a lengthy, must-read investigation and, after contacting the departments of agriculture in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and learned that hundreds of people planted them. Some recipients reported that they ate the seeds, or they ate what grew from them. Some called the cops to ask what they should do about it. 

The Plant Industry Division of North Carolina's Department of Agriculture has decided to make its own seed-tracking reports publicly available; so far, state officials have received more than 1,500 reports from seed recipients, and they have collected more than 1,000 of the seed packets. At least 67 people said they planted the seeds, while 30 individuals said that they destroyed them in a variety of ways, including putting them in the trash, flushing them down the toilet, and dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire. 

“We have some concerns about seed being put in landfills,” Phil Wilson, the director of the state's Plant Industry Division, told The News & Observer. “Fortunately, most landfills are lined and deep burial of the material hopefully will eliminate any risks with the seed being discarded in the trash.” (For what it's worth, the USDA's recommended methods of disposing of the seeds include baking them in the oven, "suffocating them" in two Ziplock baggies, immersing them in bleach, or wrapping them tightly in duct tape.) 

Despite the number of agencies—both at the state and federal level—who are investigating every aspect of the seeds, no one seems to be entirely sure why it's happening, what the point of it is, or when the shipments will stop.