Thursday, May 19, 2011

Is the Watermelon Accelerating Agent Really Harmless?

The following article is an investigative  report of the "exploding watermelon" story that has garnered international attention of late. It shoots down the reassuring reportage in the mainstream Chinese press. This type of investigative reporting is very common on the Chinese web and individual reports of this sort are widely copied and disseminated at many Chinese web sites. 

The article was written by Zheng Fengtian and posted at the Utopia web site  on 5/18/2011 (

In today’s Beijing News it was reported that, “an expert said the watermelon growth accelerating agent widely used in China is harmless to the human body." The news was the leading story on all the major web portals. In an interview expert Wang Liangju (WLJ) said that "the accelerating agent or growth regulator is used in the promotion of plant production, its function is the same as the hormones in the plants that regulate plant growth and development. The accelerating agent began to be widely used internationally in the 1960s and 70s and since the 1980s has been widely used throughout China on fruits and strawberries, etc. in accordance with state regulations. When put to appropriate use there are no side effects on the human body." The main reason for the Jiangsu incident reported in the Yangtze Evening News was the heavy rainfall following a drought, which lead to the watermelon 'explosions' that attracted everyone’s attention."  The newspaper said ,"Nanjing Agricultural University, College of Horticulture, Professor WLJ after looking into the situation and conducting analysis said that there was a drought during the three month early growing season from March through May then from the afternoon of May 7 to the morning of May 8 heavy rains were the main cause for the melons cracking open."

It was really pleasant news. It was all because of the horrible weather conditions, the accelerating agent had nothing to do with the melons swelling up and exploding, so we can all relax and safely eat watermelon! But the question is, if the problem was influenced by climate change then it should not have been restricted to just one town in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province. This shouldn’t have been the only town in which watermelons were grown, why didn’t the same weather conditions in other places result in similarly exploding watermelons? Was this due to the reporters not doing their job or due to a successful local news cover-up? On reflection, neither should be the case. Blaming the weather for the explosions is a bold hypothesis, but it defies logic.

However, after a thorough search on the web Prof. Wang Liangju’s reassuring assertion that the watermelon growth accelerating agent widely used domestically is harmless to the human body has become hard to swallow. The Baidu On-line Encyclopedia indicates that Prof.  WLJ "has been engaged in the promotion of new technology in the research and development concerning the growth and  regulation of fruit, vegetables and other horticultural crops,” "mainly at present, in the application of 5 - aminolevulinic acid (ALA) in agricultural production, the development of the ALA as the main active ingredient of the "strong amino acid water-soluble fertilizer Philharmonic," Whether or not Professor WLJ originally took money for doing research work for the accelerating agent we do not know. But it only makes sense that the conclusions of somebody blowing his own horn should be suspect. Can’t you see that in China there are many devotees of high-tech who blindly promote new technology in order to make a fortune. There are obvious conflicts of interest.

After all is said and done do plant hormone additives have a negative effect on the health of the human body? This is a such an important question, with so many broad interrelated associated issues, but so far it has gotten a minimal amount of attention. Let us look at the views of medical experts, after all, those who ate the watermelon with the accelerating agent were humans. Those experts who are engaged in plant hormone research should not be the one’s who investigate their effects on human health, this is the domain of medical experts. Many medical experts believe that one reason for childhood sexual precocity is due to  the residual effects of animal and plant hormones. Most counter-seasonal vegetables and fruits are forced by hormones. The short-term effect seems to be slight, but the long-term side effects of human consumption could be harmful causing a disruption of the adult endocrine system, affecting the balance of human metabolism. This could be even more harmful to children, leading to childhood sexual precocity. Animal experiments show their  potential impact on animal reproductive functions and their role in growth and development. Other studies have found that the most common set of ethylene plant hormones can definitely damage the human brain and kidney while gibberellins (GAs) can lead to infertility disorders. Studies of mutagenicity in 3 experimental groups of mouse somatic and germ cell found that the incidence of micronuclei was significantly higher (6.13 ‰, 9.13 ‰, 11.25 ‰)  than in the conrtol group (2.88 ‰ ).  There is also a dose - response relationship, in high and medium dose groups the abnormality rate (49.6 ‰) is claerly higher than allowed by human poisoning standards. Two human trials of ethylene toxicity are as follows: Half of the 10 men and women tested with a dosage of 1.8 mg/ kg had abdominal pain, diarrhea, stomach cramps, increases in urinary frequency and volume and an increase or decrease in appetite. In addition,  plasma cholinesterase and erythrocyte cholinesterase activity increased.

A separate report, by botany Prof. Yin Saer of the Department of Biology, Istanbul University,  warned that excessive hormones contained in fruits and vegetables get concentrated in the human body. This is very harmful to health, causing damage to the nervous system, causing allergies, or even causing cancer.

How many fruits on the market today have been treated with plant hormones? Isn’t it claimed by plant hormone researchers that these hormones have been largely self-digested in mature fruits and plants? There are a very few studies in which plant growth regulators can be measured from fruits and vegetables sold on the market. One such report on 30 samples of bean sprouts collected from 3 farmer’s markets in Hangzhou measured 4 - chlorophenoxy acetatein content at a level greater than allowed by state food hygiene standards of 1 mg / kg. Measurements of  5mg/kg ~ 30 mg / kg were found in 2 samples of green bean sprouts and 5 samples of yellow bean sprouts.

In Shenyang over 50 samples of a variety of sold fruits were collected from two supermarkets and three farmers markets. In 46 samples ethylene was detected for an overall detection rate of 92.00%. It was detected in 38 of the 42 domestically produced fruits, a detection rate of 90.00%. It seems residues were quite common.

In addition the use of plant hormones also injures the plants. These hormones have the following effects on fruits and vegetables: increased head size, abnormal color, bland taste and poor quality. Compared to organically produced mature fruits and vegetables the fruit and vegetables produced with hormones had hard flesh, uneven color, and shortened storage period. Why hasn’t the fruit in recent years been good to eat? This has a great deal to do with it.

Plant hormone residues in agricultural products is gaining more and more attention. Watermelon, fruit and vegetable farmers in order to generate high profits, have abused the use of plant hormones, consciously increasing their concentration and application time, etc., bringing great risks to human health. Currently the United States, Canada, Japan and other countries have developed rigorous agricultural chemical standards for these kinds of hormone residues. China’s standards still lag far behind and are in urgent need of improvement. There should at least be regular agricultural chemical tests to detect these plant hormones.

The U.S. has very good experience in this regard and is worth our study. These plant hormones are classified as agricultural chemicals and must undergo rigorous toxicological tests and health and safety tests before they can used in the market. Moreover, the testing and approval authority is not in the agricultural sector but the environmental protection department.  At present there are many serious problems in the division of labor in our administrative system. The agricultural sector oversees both production and safety and there are deficiencies in enforcement. A lack of third party checks and balances exists for production at the risk of sacrificing health and safety. The safety of these humanly consumed agricultural products should not lack the oversight by heath departments and environmental protection agencies.

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