They are now selling more cars than the US. They have around 420 million Internet users, a number higher than the US population. They are the world’s biggest exporter, the largest energy consumer, and the largest producer of solar cells. As the top beer drinkers in the world they drink almost one-fourth of world production, while 320 million of them smoke—representing one-third of the planet’s smokers. Astounding statistics, and for the most part something of a grand achievement.
But the Chinese are having trouble with their watermelons.
In a small town of China’s Jiangsu Province, a watermelon recently exploded in the face of an elderly woman as she was cutting it open. Outside of town the watermelon fields of this eastern province have become minefields of detonating fruit, with farmers dodging salvos of melon-mush and flying seeds. Jiangsu’s chemically treated melons are going boom in a shocking loss for farmers. One of these farmers found eighty exploded melons one recent morning, but by noon the number had increased to 100. Two days later he stopped counting.
The culprit in these odd explosions is the chemical forchlorfenuron, one that when used correctly on some (but not all) crops can bring a harvest forward by two weeks, increasing both size and market price more than twenty percent. Agricultural experts say the chemical has been widely used in China since the 1980s, adding that even though it is unsuitable for watermelons it probably has little health risk. Forchlorfenuron is a legal fertilizer in China, sometimes used to stimulate cell separation. Used on watermelons, it often produces misshapen melons with white seeds and a tendency to blow up in your face.
Exploding watermelons are just another of China’s food scares, one in a list that includes problems of heavy metal cadmium in rice, toxic melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms, and borax added to pork to make it resemble beef.
Farmers in China often depend on fertilizers because they hire out as migrant workers, leaving less time for their own crops. Many of them confess to growing their own food separately from the chemically-raised crops they sell. One farmer lamented, “Nothing is safe to eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money.”
Concerns about food safety in China are growing larger. After six babies died and thousands more became ill from melamine-tainted milk in 2008 the government promised to deal with the problem, but then quickly arrested and jailed one parent who had set up a website to expose the problem and appeal for justice. More recently officials have begun encouraging coverage of food safety issues. In April they announced a crackdown on toxic additives when 300 people became ill after eating ractopamine-fed pork.
The country’s People’s Daily website has run stories of human birth control chemicals being used on cucumber plants in one area, while the China Daily reported that Sichuan peppers release red dye in water. The Sina news service revealed that in one region barite powder has been injected into chickens to increase their weight. A research study at Nanjing Agricultural University estimated a tenth of China’s rice may be tainted with cadmium which has adverse affects on the human nervous system.
Wary consumers in China choose to buy foreign products, which they view as safer, but mislabeling is another problem. The Fruit Industry Association of Guangdong province told reporters this week that most of the country’s ‘imported’ fruit is actually grown in China.