Packets of seeds have been arriving on the doorsteps of some Canadians without explanation and a few of the recipients have, to the concern of government officials, planted their contents.
Documents obtained through a federal access to information and privacy (ATIP) request files by CTV Calgary detail how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) tasked inspectors across the country with tracking down the seed recipients, and ensuring the seeds were destroyed.
The 825 pages of spreadsheets and emails document a countrywide, systematic attempt to round up and destroy the seeds, with CFIA officers either collecting the seeds for disposal, or advising seed recipients to destroy them, usually through incineration.
The vast majority of people who contacted the CFIA had not planted the seeds, but the documents list dozens of cases where the seeds were planted, and had sprouted, by the time CFIA inspectors were contacted.
In one entry, Walkerton, Ontario-based inspector Peter Coleman wrote:
‘Homeowner had ordered Bonzai tree through Amazon pre-pandemic, a month after the company contacted her saying they couldn’t fill her order because of covid then these seeds showed up a month after that. She planted them in pots thinking that maybe they were the seeds she had ordered. Only 1 seeding is growing in pot after approximately 1 month. She said she saw lots of ‘small centipedes’ in the soil. Pots, soil and leftover seeds were collected. Soil is being run in the Berlese Funnel”
A Berlese funnel is a device used to extract insects from soil samples.
CTV asked the CFIA for details regarding what was discovered in the samples of soil, seeds, and plant material collected.
“We have no further information than what is contained in our last update (Aug 6, 2020) on the issue,” said a CFIA public affairs spokesperson/
That update does not address the results of the soil testing but does say “The seeds are from a range of plant species, including tomato, strawberry, rose and citrus, as well as some weed seeds that are common in Canada (for example, shepherd’s purse and flixweed).”
Based on visual inspections carried out to date, the seeds appear to be low-risk, however Canadians are being cautioned to not plant these seeds from unknown origins.”
However the documents also note Toronto-based CFIA inspector Shawn Slack writing “Seeds were not basil. It is poison ivy and is native to Australia and is invasive. She (the seed recipient) already planted the seeds and it started growing.”
Planting of foreign invasive species could have dire consequences according to Olds College plant scientist Christine Fulkerth
“Weeds are competing for the same resources as our crop plants, for light and nutrients and moisture, And if they’re competing for that same resource, which is quite limited especially in our prairie agricultural system, we have to be careful of that.”
While the seeds being documented by the CFIA were, for the most part, not ordered by the recipients Fulkerth warns even seeds purchased from outside the country, or in some cases outside the province you live in, could potentially cause problems.
“Even if you’re buying like a wildflower mix, for instance, make sure you read what’s in it,” cautioned Fulketh. “And, if they don’t list the actual species, I would maybe look at another source of plant material. Every province has their own set of rules on the weed side of things, and even (seeds) coming in from the U.S. as well.”
In almost every case. seed recipients who contacted the CFIA identified the seeds as coming from Asia, predominantly from China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The two companies cited most frequently as deliverers of the seeds were the online retailers Amazon and Wish.
The CFIA says the seed deliveries were quite likely a ‘brushing scam’, in which an online retailer tries to boost online sales by sending unrequested products to customers and posting fake positive reviews.
The CFIA documents reveal that the seeds were frequently mislabelled as beads or jewellery.
While recipients were not billed for the packages the Better Business Bureau (BBB) says people who are caught in a brushing scam should be on guard.
“It means that somebody else has your data, so they can be using your username, your password, whatever you might have stored in there, as well, they might have your credit card information,” said Mary O’Sullivan-Andersen, Calgary BBB president and CEO. “So sometimes you might receive a package and they’ve actually charged somebody else for it. Other times, it could be small charges that you haven’t even noticed on your credit cards.”
The foreign seed deliveries began in the late spring of 2020, just as Canadians started planting in earnest, depleting local seed supplies in many garden centres. Those shortages led many people to order seeds online and may have masked the scope of the unordered foreign seed deliveries.
Seed suppliers are already reporting heightened sales leading up to the 2021 planting season.
The CFIA says it is working with the Canada Border Services Agency and Canada Post, as well as its international partners, to identify and stop the flow of unsolicited seeds into Canada.
It continues to recommend that unknown seeds be sealed in a second bag, and reported to the local CFIA office. Additionally it says anyone ordering seeds online should check out Canada’s plant import requirements when buying and selling online.