Those mystery seeds from China - and what happened

What I learned by reading thousands of internal emails about the Chinese mystery seeds.

In late July, America was briefly enthralled with “Unsolicited Seeds from China,” which started showing up in mailboxes in all 50 states. These mystery seeds prompted warnings from the USDA, which said people should not plant them, and should instead alert their state agricultural authority and mail them to the USDA or their local officials.

Many Americans heeded this advice. Many more decidedly did not.

According to documents obtained by Motherboard from state departments of agriculture, at least hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans planted the seeds.

Since the seed story originally broke, I have been obsessed with learning more. To do this, I filed 52 freedom of information requests; one with each of the departments of agriculture (or their state-level equivalent) in all 50 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico. I also filed requests with the USDA and several of its labs. Thousands of pages of emails, spreadsheets, reports, and documents, as well as audio voicemail recordings, have been trickling in for the last month, and they have been enlightening in many ways.

Based on documents I’ve read, the scale of the mystery seed operation was much larger than I had originally suspected and than was originally reported. Conservatively, it is safe to say that tens of thousands of Americans received what they perceived to be Chinese mystery seeds in July. Some states, like North Carolina, had more than 1,000 people contact the department of agriculture having received unsolicited seeds. Others, like New Mexico, had roughly 100 recorded seed receivers. Many of these seed receivers, regardless of location, panicked.


By Jason Koebler / Senior staff writer at Motherboard

Jason Koebler is a freelance writer based in New York City.

(Source:; September 8, 2020;
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