Screen shot 2011-05-17 at 5.02.47 PM.pngExploding watermelons caused by the application of forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator, hit the Chinese and international press today. Chinese media, apparently encouraged by the government (for now anyway), has been exposing the lax farming practices, shortcuts and excessive use of fertilizer behind a rash of food safety scandals. The exploding melons, 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, added to make it resemble beef.

According to news reports, farmers claim forchlorfenuron can bring the harvest forward by two weeks and increase the size and price of the fruit by more than 20%. Agricultural experts say forchlorfenuron has been widely used in China since the 1980s. “In general we don’t suggest chemicals with plant hormones be used on watermelons, as they are very sensitive. They might end up looking very strange and people will not want to buy them,” said Cui Jian, director of the vegetable research institute at Qingdao Academy of Agricultural Science. “The taste won’t be as good and storage is more difficult, but it should not harm anyone’s health.”

Environment groups say the overuse of agricultural chemicals is a problem that goes beyond growth stimulants. 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 alsoconcerned 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.

The fact that farms do not eat what they sell says it all.