Exploding Watermelons in Jiangsu Province Latest Sign of China's Food Safety Problem

John Solomon/CC BY 2.0. Watermelons for sale in Shanghai.

Farmers in China's eastern Jiangsu province awoke one morning earlier this month to a scene of agricultural carnage -- hundreds of exploded watermelons. More continued to burst throughout the next couple of days, ruining more than 100 acres of the crop. In the search for a culprit, many are placing the blame on the misuse of growth chemicals in a country already deeply troubled by food-safety scandals.

State broadcaster China Central Television reported shortly after the incident that forchlorfenuron -- a growth accelerator farmers say can boost the size and price of the fruit by more than 20 percent and allow it to be harvested two weeks earlier than usual -- had been sprayed on the watermelons too late in the season and in overly wet weather, causing them to explode like "landmines."

Lax Farming Practices
Agricultural scientist Cui Jian said the chemical "should not harm anyone's health," but that it is not recommended for use on watermelons because it could change the taste and shape of the "sensitive" fruit. Environmentalists and other watchdog groups say, though, that the incident, while relatively minor, is yet another sign of ongoing problems with "lax farming practices, shortcuts, and excessive use of fertilizer," according to The Guardian:

Pan Jing of Greenpeace said farmers depended on fertilizers because many doubled as migrant workers and had less time for their crops. This dependency was promoted by state subsidies keeping fertilizers cheap. "The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertilizer, but they are also concerned about food output."

Many farmers grow their own food separately from the chemically raised crops they sell. "I feel there is nothing safe I can eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money," said Huang Zhanliang, a farmer in Hebei.

Cadmium-Tainted Rice
Researchers in China previously reported that up to 10 percent of the country's rice may be tainted with the heavy metal cadmium, a finding that follows discoveries of toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms, borax in pork, human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants, artificially dyed peppers, and barite powder being injected into chickens, the paper reported.

The exploding watermelons remain a bit mysterious as some farmers insist they did not use forchlorfenuron, the BBC reported. But all have been left to chop up the unsellable fruit and feed it to their fish and pigs.

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Tags: Agriculture | China | Farming | Food Safety | Fruits & Vegetables