Mystery seeds

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has received report of seeds mailed from China that the recipient did not order.

“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favors, nor your hate.”

— Banquo, speaking to the three witches,

from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

The U.S. imports roughly half a trillion dollars’ worth of goods from China each year — electronics and computers, machinery, clothing, furniture, chemicals, you name it. That’s a lot of trade — especially noteworthy when trade-related tensions are running high between the two countries.

So, how do those mysterious seeds factor into the trade picture between the two global consumer giants?

If you haven’t heard, mysterious packages of seeds with Chinese return addresses are showing up in mailboxes of recipients who say they either did not order them or were not expecting them to be shipped from China. A recent report says the illegally shipped seeds — unidentified and often labeled as jewelry — have appeared in Washington state, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota and Nevada and possibly elsewhere. If the seeds are invasive or dangerous or if there’s a different evil intent, it is not known at this time, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is on the case.

“USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents to determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment,” the agency noted recently.

Another unanswered question is why — and that’s always a big one. The primary working theory right now — like our understanding of the novel coronavirus that originated in China, the science is unsettled — is that it’s a brushing scam. That’s where folks who receive unsolicited items see their names forged on positive customer reviews in order to increase sales of the product or other goods connected to the seller.

As theories go, at least a brushing scheme would be unlikely to unleash too much mayhem across our weary land. Annoyance, yes. Pestilence and quarantine and death, hopefully not. As Banquo pointed out in the presence of his (at the time) great friend Macbeth, it’s impossible to foretell the future or the intent of others. Things didn’t end well for Banquo in the Scottish play, but let us be hopeful that those across the Pacific Ocean who have put this mystery into motion have limited their ambition to profits and not to violent ambition and carnage.

In the meanwhile, let this be a reminder that good, healthy doses of caution and skepticism are your friends when anything even remotely scam-like comes your way. We might laugh at the old Nigerian Prince email scheme, yet it has been refined over the years and still rakes in millions, according to the FBI. If something sounds too good to be true, odds are great that it is too good to be true, but far too often we let our greed overrule our brains.

Free mystery seeds, all the way from China! Should I plant them?

Um, that’s a big no.

After originally asking recipients to double-bag the seeds and dispose of them — and to absolutely not plant them — the Washington State Department of Agriculture is now asking for the bags of seeds to be placed in a plastic bag, then placed in a mailing envelope and sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for further analysis. If it’s too late and the seeds are in the ground (“What’s done, is done”), USDA says to leave the seeds be and contact them.

And next time, if there is a next time, let caution rule the day.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Bruce Drysdale.