Global Policy Forum

Exploding Watermelons put Spotlight on Chinese Farming Practices

Chinese food producers have been charged in a number of major scandals in recent years. Discoveries of cadmium in rice and melamine in milk have caused alarm among the public. Now there are reports of excessive use of fertilizers which has been linked to a phenomenon of exploding watermelons. The government subsidizes the fertilizers to maintain high levels of food output. The problem is leading to panic among consumers, who feel they can’t trust the government or producers.

By Jonathan Watts

May 17, 2011

New food scandal as fields of watermelons are destroyed after farmers mistakenly apply growth accelerator

The flying pips, shattered shells and fleshy shrapnel still haunt farmer Liu Mingsuo after an effort to chemically boost his fruit crop went spectacularly wrong.

Field after field of watermelons exploded when he and other agricultural workers in eastern China mistakenly applied forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator.

The incident has become a focus of a domestic media drive to expose the lax farm practices, shortcuts and excessive use of fertiliser behind a rash of food safety scandals in China.

It follows discoveries of the heavy metal cadmium in rice, toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms and the detergent borax in pork (to make it look like beef).

Compared to such cases of dangerous contamination, Liu's transgression was minor, but it has gained notoriety after being picked up by the state broadcaster CCTV.

The broadcaster blamed the bursting of the fruit on the legal chemical forchlorfenuron, which stimulates cell separation but often leaves the melons misshapen and turns the seeds white. The report said the farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode like "landmines".

After losing three hectares (eight acres), Liu told reporters he was unable to sleep because he could not shake the image of the fruit bursting.

"On 7 May, I came out and counted 80 (bursting watermelons) but by the afternoon it was 100," he said. "Two days later I didn't bother to count any more."

About 20 farmers and 45 hectares around Danyang were affected. The fruit could not be sold but was instead fed to fish and pigs.

Agricultural experts say forchlorfenuron has been widely used in China since the 1980s.

Farmers say it can bring the harvest forward by two weeks and increase the size and price of the fruit by more than 20%.

Environment groups said the overuse of agricultural chemicals was a growing problem that went beyond growth stimulants.

Pan Jing of Greenpeace said farmers depended on fertiliser because many double as migrant workers, which means they have less time for their crops. This dependency is promoted by state subsidies that keep fertilisers cheap.

"The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertiliser, but they are also concerned about food output."

Many farmers now grow their own food separately from the chemically-raised crops they sell at the market.

"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.

Concerns about food safety have lingered despite government promises to deal with the problem after six babies died and thousands of others became ill as a result of melamine-tainted milk in 2008.

The authorities appear to have mixed feelings about the role of the media and public opinion in naming and shaming culprits.

In the wake of the melamine scandal, police jailed one of the parents, Zhao Lianhai, who had set up a website to expose the problem and appeal for justice.

Recently, however, officials have encouraged coverage of food safety issues.

Zhang Yong, the head of a new cabinet-level food safety commission, praised the media's "important watchdog role".

In the past week, the People's Daily website has run stories of human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants in Xian, China Daily has reported Sichuan peppers releasing red dye when soaked in water and the Sina news portal revealed that barite powder had been injected into chickens in Guizhou to increase their weight.


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