When you think of watermelon, you probably think of fond summer memories.
It’s generally accepted that a picnic or cookout isn’t complete without a juicy watermelon big enough to share with the whole family. But at what cost are these gigantic watermelons being produced?
Recent news has shown that the drive to make the fruit bigger and more profitable has had an unexpected effect in China: exploding watermelon.
So what is the exploding watermelon? It all started when farmer’s noticed that some of their fruit had cracked in half out in their fields. Before long, hundreds of acres of melon had been lost to the mysterious phenomenon (1).
However, these melons weren’t exploding on their own: while 19 of the 20 farmers affected insisted they didn’t use chemicals in their field, one popular fertilizer was found to be the culprit (2).
Forchlorfenuron is used to make melons up to 20% bigger and bring harvest forward by two weeks, ensuring a more significant profit for farmers. Melons treated with the fertilizer are often less flavorful, more misshapen and filled with white seeds instead of black ones.
Normally, the fertilizer doesn’t cause watermelons to explode, but heavy rain and poor timing contributed to the strange reaction.
Is Forchlorfenuron Safe?
Forchlorfenuron has been used in China since the 1980s and is generally considered safe: “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.”
However,the Environmental Protection Agency insists otherwise: the fertilizer, which is also used in the United States and elsewhere to increase the size of grapes and kiwis is cytotoxic (3).
Multiple animal studies found it to cause acute oral, dermal and respiratory toxicity as well as kidney inflammation. Although it’s not considered a to be carcinogenic, the fertilizer does cause reproductive toxicity, stomach lesions and increased fetal mortality.
If that wasn’t enough, these chemicals are leeching into the environment and affecting both fauna and flora all around the world.
So if these fertilizers have such a devastating health and environmental cost, why are they still being allowed? Pan Jing of Greenpeace explains: “The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertilizer, but they are also concerned about food output.”
With the Chinese population exceeding 1 billion people and the Chinese agricultural industry relying on international exports, it’s no surprise that the government is doing all it can to increase food production, even if it means long-term side-effects.
How To Protect Yourself
Normally the name “exploding watermelon” would turn people off. But sometimes if the watermelon has a different name and looks bigger than normal, you couldn’t tell if it was bad or not. The best way to keep harmful chemicals out of your food is buying local organic produce or growing your own food. If you’re on a budget, try to avoid Chinese products, which have been criticized internationally on multiple occasions for fake products and even illegal use of toxic pesticides.
If you can’t afford organic all the time, here are the safest and most dangerous non-organic foods. The dirty dozen soak up pesticides and herbicides, so they should always be organic while the clean 15 just need a vinegar rinse and a good scrub to be eaten safely (4).
- Bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas
- Sweet peas
- Sweet Potatoes