China's "Exploding" Watermelons, Explained
The headlines make it sound incredible:
China's red threat: Exploding watermelons
Burst melons put Chinese farming under the spotlight
Melons blow their tops
Danger... unexploded watermelons
Bursting with taste
It's easy to imagine acres and acres of explosive melons, fields detonating with pink and green popcorn melons, splattering in the sun, although the images from Central China Television-13 (above) were decidedly more mundane than the hyperbolic coverage. According to the Associated Press’ Alexa Olesen and the BBC’s Trystan Young, the CCTV report blamed excess rainfall and the misapplication of forchlorfenuron, underscoring the chemical abuse that's led to a string food safety scandals across China.
Forchlorfenuron came about in the 1970s, nearly two decades after U.S. scientists discovered the existence of plant growth regulators called cytokinans (apparently through the study of coconut water and herring sperm). Japanese researchers created a synthetic analog—a chemical made in the lab mirroring these naturally occuring ones—and called it KT-30. Now, forchlorfenuron, or CPPU, is sold in China as "Sino Golden" and here as “Prestige” (PDF).
For a sense of what it's supposed to do, take a look at the effects of various applications, in parts per million, on these hardy kiwis:
China's latest scandal may raise our fears about imported melons, but perhaps that's a diversion from our own food safety woes. In 2004, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) cleared the plant hormone, the only one on the market, for use in kiwis, seedless grapes, and raisins. It's been used experimentally in California, so, without more attention, there's a chance you could soon be eating the same thing that may have made those melons explode.
Bottom photo via "CPPU application on size and quality of hardy kiwi," ©2006 Elsevier.