Exploding Watermelons… and More.

May 18th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Exploding Watermelons… and More.

I began this morning, as I do most weekday mornings, listening to NPR and catching up a bit on the news. A rather unusual story caught my attention early on in the broadcast – a story about exploding watermelons in China. The explosions were automatically occurring within the fruit. By some accounts fields of watermelons were erupting and many of the explosions were pretty violent with a very powerful burst.

It turns out the explosions were caused by the application of a growth accelerator called forchlorfenuron. According to the report, farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode. Farmers claim forchlorfenuron can bring the harvest forward by two weeks and increase the size and price of the fruit by more than 20%.

As I read about this story across the web this morning, it’s certainly being reported as another incident in a series of incidents where China seems to have little regard for the chemicals they use in the production of their food supply. One report claims that many of the farmers used the chemical because they don’t make an adequate living farming and need to moonlight as farm workers on other farms to get by. Using a chemical that accelerated the growth without needing much attention from them seemed ideal from their view.

There is no doubt that China has some very dubious agricultural practices and most of us would not want to eat food imported from China right now. However, it’s worth pointing out that our primary agricultural system in the west (conventional farming relying on synthetic chemicals) is perhaps not all that different. From what I read, the Chinese growers are motivated to find a very convenient and easy farming method, one that creates a strong yield for bigger profits and even seems to place this as a priority over the health and well being of the people who eat the food. In theory that is not any different than what drives our agricultural system here in the west. Actually, being one of the first countries to explore chemical farming and being the largest exporter of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the world, we have certainly had a hand in where conventional farming is today worldwide. It’s certainly true that some of the farming chemicals used in China today would not be approved in the west; but we had our day – remember DDT?

The point is that the key takeaway from the exploding watermelon story shouldn’t be, “oh, there’s China being China again”, as it seems to be reported. That may well be true. But the key takeaway for us here in North America should be a little more introspection and a little more self-awareness about how we continue to raise our food. In the end it all comes down to this very simple concept, “we shouldn’t mess with nature”. Let food grow at its own pace. Growing food should be one of the easiest, most natural and beautiful aspects of life. As it is today, our system of agriculture is intently focused on how we can produce food faster, cheaper and with less work – that’s where all the research and money goes. Should that really be the goal? I always thought it was to feed people and provide them with the best food possible. Silly me. Choose Organic!