If you think that exploding watermelons in the middle of a field in eastern China sounds like a plot straight out of some bad science-fiction movie, think again. Farmers in this region treated the watermelons with an overdose of growth chemicals during wet weather, causing them to start bursting open, creating a horror scene. In an effort to make their watermelons bigger and more profitable, the farmers around Danyang city in Jiangsu province, treated their watermelons with a growth accelerator called forchlorfenuron. More than 20 farmers lost up to 115 acres of watermelon.
What is forchlorfenuron?
This shouldn’t be regarded as something that normally happens, because if used properly this chemical is safe, according to Wang Liangju, a professor with the College of Horticulture at Nanjing Agricultural University. He was there when the watermelons started exploding and says that it’s the farmers fault because they used the drug too late in the season, and the heavy rain increased the possibility of the watermelons bursting open. He adds that had they used the drug when the watermelons were still unripen, this wouldn’t have happened. He continues by saying that “the melon they were planting is a thin-rind variety and these kind are actually nicknamed the ‘exploding melon’ because they tend to split”, which also may be a part of the problem.
This drug is approved for use by Chinese regulations and it’s even legal to use it in the US, on kiwi fruits and grapes. However, many farmers in China are believed to misuse legal and illegal chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, in an effort to maximize their profits.
The main question is how safe it is?
Here are the facts that the EPA has on record, and its pesticide fact sheets states that it’s not 100% harmless:
- Moderate toxicity to freshwater fish
- Slightly higher toxicity levels in the avian population
- Increased pup mortality and decreased litter sizes in rat studies
How can you tell if your fruit is treated with pesticides or growth hormones?
The Environmental Working Group reports that nearly 2/3 of the 3,015 produce samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013 contained pesticide residues, with a total of 165 different pesticides on thousands of fruit and vegetable samples.
Here’s a list of the produce that showed highest levels of pesticide residue:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas
And this is the list of produce that contained the least pesticides:
- Sweet corn
- sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
The first sign that a fruit or a vegetable is not organic and pesticide-free is its lack of flavor. When farmers use growth hormones, they do their job and stimulate cells to grow faster but they also strip the plant from its natural flavor.
The fact is that forchlorfenuron is not the only growth hormone used on produce, there are many other which can even have a more detrimental effect on your overall health. For example, among the most widely used hormone in India is oxytocin, which is banned for public sale but it’s still being used as a fertilizer and pesticide. In addition to these growth promoting agents, farmers also used ethylene, which may contain traces of arsenic, and calcium carbide, which can cause a whole array of health problems.
If you want to be sure that you’re not exposing yourself to unnecessary and potentially damaging chemicals you should always try to buy organic produce, if not for everything than at least for those fruits and vegetables which contain the highest level of pesticides. If you’re not buying organic than at least make sure you decontaminate it properly, wash it thoroughly and peel it.