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Exploding watermelons put spotlight on

Chinese farming practices


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

A Chinese woman sells watermelons at a market. Forchlorfenuron can


increase the size of the fruit by 20%, farmers say. Photograph:
Chinafotopress/Getty Images
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.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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