Fields of watermelon burst in China farm fiasco

May 17, 2011 - 6:43 AM

BEIJING (AP) — Watermelons have been bursting by the score in eastern China after farmers gave them overdoses of growth chemicals during wet weather, creating fields of "land mines" instead of the bounty of fruit they wanted.

About 20 farmers around Danyang city in Jiangsu province were affected, losing up to 115 acres (45 hectares) of melon, China Central Television said in an investigative report.

Prices over the past year prompted many farmers to jump into the watermelon market. All of those with exploding melons apparently were first-time users of the growth accelerator forchlorfenuron, though it has been widely available for some time, CCTV said.

The farmers used it during an overly rainy period and put it on too late in the season, causing the melons to burst open, CCTV said, citing agricultural experts.

Chinese regulations don't forbid the drug, and it is allowed in the U.S. on kiwi fruit and grapes. But the report underscores how farmers in China are abusing both legal and illegal chemicals, with many farms misusing pesticides and fertilizers.

Farmer Liu Mingsuo ended up with eight acres (three hectares) of ruined fruit and told CCTV that seeing his crop splitting open was like a knife cutting his heart.

"On May 7, I came out and counted 80 (burst watermelons) but by the afternoon it was 100," Liu said. "Two days later I didn't bother to count anymore."

Intact watermelons were being sold at a wholesale market in nearby Shanghai, the report said, but even those showed telltale signs of forchlorfenuron use: fibrous, misshapen fruit with mostly white instead of black seeds.

The government has voiced alarm over the widespread overuse of food additives like dyes and sweeteners that retailers hope will make food more attractive and boost sales.

Though Chinese media remain under strict government control, domestic coverage of food safety scandals has become more aggressive in recent months, an apparent sign that the government has realized it needs help policing the troubled food industry.

The CCTV report quoted Feng Shuangqing, a professor at the China Agricultural University, as saying the watermelon problem showed that China needs to clarify its farm chemical standards and supervision to protect consumer health.

The broadcaster described the watermelons as "land mines" and said they were exploding by the acre (hectare) in the Danyang area.

Many of farmers resorted to chopping up the fruit and feeding it to fish and pigs, the report said.