David Randall: If you want booming growth, you can't afford to be thin-skinned

Share
Related Topics

It falls to the journalist to investigate many things: the inner whirrings of the world economy, the ebb and flow of political fortunes, and even the whys and wherefores of the Government's health policy. By the time you get to this end of the paper, however, these matters have been dealt with, and so it falls to me to tackle the issue that other writers have so adroitly avoided: The Great Exploding Watermelon Mystery.

It was a story that made headlines all round the world, although they were, admittedly, very small ones. The bare bones are as follows. China's economy is booming, and the price of almost everything is going through those curiously shaped roofs. The result? A sudden burst of enthusiasm for growing these large, succulent and profitable fruits, and so, entering the fields in the fertile east of the country, was a group of first-time growers, of whom a man called Liu Mingsuo was typical.

He sowed, tended and, despite a long, dry period, was preparing to reap. Time, he thought, for one final bit of assistance for his swelling fruit: the application of a growth hormone called forchlorfenuron. On 6 May, he applied the dose (it doesn't take much – eight to ten grams for a whole acre of grapes, apparently) and sat back to await the results. On 7 May, he went out to inspect his crop and found, to his surprise, that 80 of the watermelons had exploded. By the afternoon, 20 more had blown themselves up, and, by 9 May, two-thirds of his three hectares of melons had spontaneously erupted.

And he was not alone. About 20 other growers had the same experience (all told, 120 acres of melons had been affected), but only a few had sprayed forchlorfenuron. Yet the combination of the presence of this growth hormone and the dramatic explosions across eastern China's melon fields (one farmer likened the effect to that of landmines going off) was enough, in several excitable minds, to indict the chemical, especially in a country where there has been no shortage of unpleasant extra ingredients being added to foodstuffs: melamine to milk, steroids to pigs, borax to pork (and then selling it as beef), arsenic to soy sauce, bleach to popcorn, sugared water to wine, and water to stale buns before recycling them as fresh ones.

But unlike these substances, forchlorfenuron is a plant hormone, and harmless to humans, according to experts such as Professor Wang Liangju, of the Nanjing Agricultural University's College of Horticulture. He is the man who investigated the great watermelon mystery, and he said there were three causes: forchlorfenuron being applied to ripe, rather than young, fruit; the heavy rains of 7 May, and the fact that the melons being grown were a variety whose skin was notoriously thin. The growth hormone is also approved for use in the US and Australia, and widely sprayed on commercially grown grapes and kiwi fruit.

Where it doesn't seem to be applied – and I throw this idea out to any ambitious horticulturalist – is to the crops that every autumn set new records for size and weight at fruit and vegetable shows. Last year, for instance, a Shropshire man grew a 70lb cabbage, big enough for 300 servings of cabbage soup should you want such a thing (but still 54lbs short of the record); and a potato shown at a West Country show set a new best at 8lb 4oz. Britain also holds the world record for the longest beetroot (21ft), longest carrot (19ft 2in), and the heaviest parsnip (13lbs), marrow (113lbs), and gooseberry (2.19oz). And if that does not bring a patriotic tear to your eye, we even used to hold the world record for the heaviest lemon, and last year a Cambridge mother grew a 5ft 6in courgette. Just think what we could achieve with a bit of forchlorfenuron.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Ellen E Jones
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution