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What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming? – NYTimes.com

What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming? – NYTimes.com.

The Sanquan factory in Zhengzhou, China, which produces frozen dumplings and frozen glutinous rice balls. Massimo Vitali for The New York Times

‘In Sichuan, we’re eaters,” said Chen Zemin, the world’s first and only frozen-dumpling billionaire. “We have an expression that goes, ‘Even if you have a very poor life, you still have your teeth to please.’ ” He smiled and patted his not insubstantial belly. “I like to eat.”

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Chinese pot stickers and rice balls are traditionally made in enormous batches, in order to justify the effort it takes to knead the dough, roll it out, mix the filling and wrap by hand a morsel that stays fresh for only one day. Because of his medical background, Chen had an idea for how to extend the life span of his spicy-pork won tons and sweet-sesame-paste-filled balls. “As a surgeon, you have to preserve things like organs or blood in a cold environment,” Chen said. “A surgeon’s career cannot be separate from refrigeration. I already knew that cold was the best physical way to preserve.”

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Using mechanical parts harvested from the hospital junk pile, Chen built a two-stage freezer that chilled his glutinous rice balls one by one, quickly enough that large ice crystals didn’t form inside the filling and ruin the texture. His first patent covered a production process for the balls themselves; a second was for the packaging that would protect them from freezer burn. Soon enough, Chen realized that both innovations could be applied to pot stickers, too. And so in 1992, against the advice of his entire family, Chen, then 50, quit his hospital job, rented a small former print shop and started China’s first frozen-food business. He named his fledgling dumpling company Sanquan, which is short for the “Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China” — the 1978 gathering that marked the country’s first steps toward the open market.

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Today, Sanquan has seven factories nationwide. The largest, in which Chen and I were chatting, employs 5,000 workers and produces an astonishing 400 tons of dumplings a day. He showed me the factory floor from a glass-walled skywalk; below us, dozens of workers — in hooded white jumpsuits, white face masks and white galoshes — tended to nearly 100 dumpling machines lined up in rows inside a vast, white-tiled refrigerator. Every few minutes, someone in a pink jumpsuit would wheel a fresh vat of ground pork through the stainless-steel double doors in the corner and use a shovel to top off the giant conical funnel on each dumpling maker. In the far corner, a quality-control inspector in a yellow jumpsuit was dealing with a recalcitrant machine, scooping defective dumplings off the conveyor belt with both hands. At the end of the line, more than 100,000 dumplings an hour rained like beige pebbles into an endless succession of open-mouthed bags.

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An artificial winter has begun to stretch across the country, through its fields and its ports, its logistics hubs and freeways. China had 250 million cubic feet of refrigerated storage capacity in 2007; by 2017, the country is on track to have 20 times that. At five billion cubic feet, China will surpass even the United States, which has led the world in cold storage ever since artificial refrigeration was invented. And even that translates to only 3.7 cubic feet of cold storage per capita, or roughly a third of what Americans currently have — meaning that the Chinese refrigeration boom is only just beginning.

This is not simply transforming how Chinese people grow, distribute and consume food. It also stands to become a formidable new factor in climate change; cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. Of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now, perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat.

In the United States, the first mechanically cooled warehouses opened in Boston in 1881. America’s Chen Zemin was a Brooklyn-born entrepreneur named Clarence Birdseye, who invented a fast-freezing machine in 1924 to replicate the taste of the delicious frozen fish he enjoyed while traveling in Labrador. (Birds Eye brand frozen vegetables still bear his name.) In the 1930s, the African-American refrigeration pioneer Frederick McKinley Jones designed a portable cooling unit for trucks; by the 1950s, pretty much everyone in America had a refrigerator, and Swanson was delighting working wives with a frozen “sumptuous turkey dinner” that “tastes home-cooked.”

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Americans have become so used to associating refrigeration with freshness that soy-milk manufacturers have actually paid extra to have their product displayed in a refrigerated case, despite the fact that it is perfectly shelf-stable. By contrast, the Chinese didn’t build their first refrigerated warehouse until 1955. And even as skyscrapers, shopping malls and high-speed trains have transformed life in China, the refrigerator represents, on an individual level, a significant step forward. Every Chinese person over age 30 whom I spoke to could remember wistfully the moment he got his first home refrigerator, with the exception of those who still don’t have one.

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Leading up to the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing municipal authorities embarked on an ambitious program of “supermarketization,” designed to get meat and vegetables out of the open-air “wet” markets — where food is cooled by standing fans and the occasional hose down from the cold tap — and safely behind sneeze-guards in modern, climate-controlled grocery stores.

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In practical terms, tax breaks, subsidies and preferential access to land has been made available to anyone aspiring to build a refrigerated warehouse. In 2010, the government’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission made expanding the country’s refrigerated and frozen capacity one of the central priorities in its 12th Five-Year National Plan.

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Encouraged by the government’s Five-Year Plan, Chen’s fellow entrepreneurs are building their own cold-storage facilities to gain “face” — similar to the way a wealthy businessman in the United States might buy a football team. “If an independent private guy builds a cold-storage warehouse, the central government notices,” said Tim McLellan, a director at Preferred Freezer Services, an American company that is about to open its third cold-storage facility in China. “Now he has a picture with Premier Li Keqiang or President Xi.” That is true, he said, even if “the design and technology are 30 years old and they have no idea how to run it.”

Despite the expansion in frozen foods and refrigerators, the critical growth area is what’s known in the logistics business as the “cold chain” — the seamless network of temperature-controlled space through which perishable food is supposed to travel on its way from farm to refrigerator. In the United States, at least 70 percent of all the food we eat each year passes through a cold chain. By contrast, in China, less than a quarter of the country’s meat supply is slaughtered, transported, stored or sold under refrigeration. The equivalent number for fruit and vegetables is just 5 percent.

These statistics translate into scenes that would concern most American food-safety inspectors. In Shanghai, for example, one large pork processor has no refrigeration system; instead, it does all its slaughtering at night, when the temperature is slightly cooler, in a massive shed with open sides to allow for a cross breeze. The freshly disemboweled pigs hang for hours in the smoggy air. In Beijing, at the wholesale market that supplies 70 percent of the city’s vegetables, vendors carefully excavate individual, naked stalks of broccoli from trucks packed solid with ice and hay. A middle-aged farmer, bundled up against the cold, told me that he expects to have to throw away a quarter of the truckload — more when the weather is warm — as the ice melts and the vegetables rot faster than they can be sold. And just 20 minutes down the road from Sanquan’s gleaming, automated dumpling freezer, the central Zhengzhou market has mountains of unrefrigerated chicken carcasses, flopping out of plastic crates onto the concrete floor.

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Death rates from dysentery and diarrhea — serious illness is an all-too-common result of consuming bacteria or parasite-laden food — decreased by more than 90 percent from 1900 to 1950. It stands to reason, then, that a similarly seamless, well-regulated cold chain could stop spoiled food from reaching and sickening Chinese eaters. Food safety comes up in the Five-Year Plan as an issue that is “becoming protruding,” to use the distinctive prose of the Communist Party. In the past few years, all the major frozen-food companies — Sanquan, Synear and the General Mills-owned Wanchai Ferry — have been hit with staph-contamination scandals, despite their own modern facilities.

Mike Moriarty, a lead author on the A.T. Kearney report, said food safety was what initially prompted him to research the Chinese cold chain. The multinationals he works with kept complaining that poor handling was threatening their brand reputation in China. His investigations found that, on average, a Chinese person experiences some kind of digestive upset twice a week — a kind of low-level recurring food poisoning, much of which is probably caused by the kind of bacterial growth that could have been prevented by keeping food cold. “Bad bowels,” Moriarty said, “is just part of the drill for being a food consumer in China.”

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In its Development Plan for Cold-Chain Logistics of Agricultural Products, China set itself the five-year goal of reducing the loss rate for vegetables, meat and aquatic products to less than 15 percent, 8 percent and 10 percent by 2015. If the nation hits those targets next year, the effort could save a large part of the more than $32 billion in food now wasted, but at this point, there is quite a way to go. Nearly half of everything that is grown in China rots before it even reaches the retail market.

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For all the food waste that refrigeration might forestall, the uncomfortable fact is that a fully developed cold chain (field precooling stations, slaughterhouses, distribution centers, trucks, grocery stores and domestic refrigerators) requires a lot of energy.

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Calculating the climate-change impact of an expanded Chinese cold chain is extremely complicated. Artificial refrigeration contributes to global greenhouse-gas emissions in two main ways. First, generating the power (whether it be electricity for warehouses or diesel fuel for trucks) that fuels the heat-exchange process, which is at the heart of any cooling system, accounts for about 80 percent of refrigeration’s global-warming impact (measured in tons of CO2) and currently consumes nearly a sixth of global electricity usage.

But the other problem is the refrigerants themselves: the chemicals that are evaporated and condensed by the compressors in order to remove heat and thus produce cold. Some of that refrigerant leaks into the atmosphere as a gas — either a little (roughly 2 percent a year from the most up-to-date domestic refrigerators) or a lot (on average, 15 percent from commercial refrigerated warehouses). In addition, different refrigeration systems use different refrigerants, some of which, like ammonia, have a negligible global-warming impact. But others, like the hydrofluorocarbons that are popular in China, are known as “supergreenhouse gases,” because they are thousands of times more warming than CO2. If current trends in refrigerant usage were to continue, experts project that hydrofluorocarbons would be responsible for nearly half of all global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

To make matters worse, it’s not even clear that refrigeration reduces food waste over the long term. Logically, it would seem that a refrigerator should result in less food waste at home, slowing down the rate at which vegetables rot and milk sours, as well as allowing families to save leftovers. But Susanne Freidberg, a geography professor at Dartmouth College and author of “Fresh: A Perishable History,” says that refrigeration in the United States has tended to merely change when the waste occurs. Americans, too, throw away 40 percent of their food, but nearly half of that waste occurs at the consumer level, meaning in retail locations and at home. “Food waste is a justification for refrigeration,” Freidberg said. “But at the same time, there are studies that show that, over the longer time frame, the cold chain encourages consumers to buy more than they’re going to eat.”

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In U.S. homes, the size of the average domestic refrigerator has increased by almost 20 percent since 1975, leading the food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom to identify what he calls the “full-cupboard effect,” over and above Garnett’s safety-net syndrome. “So many people these days have these massive refrigerators, and there is this sense that we need to keep them well stocked,” he said. “But there’s no way you can eat all that food before it goes bad.” A four-year observational study of Los Angeles-area families carried out by U.C.L.A. social scientists confirmed this tendency to stockpile food in not just one but in multiple refrigerators.

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For most of these families, as for most Americans, Bloom says, home refrigerators simply “serve as cleaner, colder trash bins.”

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By artificially extending the life span of otherwise perishable fruits, vegetables and animal products, refrigeration changes almost everything about how we know and interact with food: how we shop, what we eat and even the definition of the word “fresh.”

Fuchsia Dunlop, a British cook and author who writes about Chinese cuisine, described how she saw traditional food-preservation skills die out over the past two decades, as refrigeration gained ground. “When I first lived in China, in 1994,” she said, “everything was dried, pickled or salted. On sunny days, people would be laying all kinds of vegetables out to dry in the sun, and some of them afterward would be rubbed with salt and put in jars to ferment. Other vegetables would be pickled in brine and preserved neat. In Chengdu, they would hang sausages and pork under the eaves of the old houses to dry, and there were these great clay pickle jars in people’s homes.”

Now, though, most of those old houses have been demolished. In the new, high-rise apartment buildings that have been built in their place, Dunlop told me, “you do have balconies that are enclosed with bars, so sometimes you can see salt meat and salt fish on coat hangers out on them.” But, she said, it’s rare. At the moment that America’s long-lost pickling, salting and smoking traditions are being revived, China’s much richer and more ancient preservation techniques are dying out.

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By removing constraints of proximity and seasonality, refrigeration can change what Chinese farmers produce. I met with plant scientists at the Beijing Vegetable Research Center who are selecting and optimizing the varieties of popular Chinese greens that stand up best to cold storage. If they are successful, the incredible regional variety and specificity of Chinese fruits and vegetables may soon resemble the homogeneous American produce aisle, which is often limited to three tomato varieties and five types of apple for sale, all hardy (and flavorless) enough to endure lengthy journeys and storage under refrigeration.

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Dai Jianjun is the 45-year-old chain-smoking chef of Longjing Caotang, a restaurant on the outskirts of Hangzhou, the scenic capital of Zhejiang province, which serves an entirely locally sourced, anti-industrial cuisine.

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Over the course of two epic meals, separated only by a short paddle on a local lake to catch fish for dinner, Dai fed me dried vegetables and mushrooms, vinegar-pickled radishes, fermented “stinky” tofu and peanuts that six months earlier had been packed into earthenware jars. I visited his on-site bamboo-walled drying shed, where salted silvery fish halves and hunks of pork hung in orderly rows. Between courses, Dai pulled out his iPad to show me a series of videos that demonstrated how radish preservation varies by topography, with hill people drying the vegetable in the sun before salting it and flatlanders working in reverse order. After our boat ride, as the rest of the fishermen beheaded and gutted the catch on a wooden block, the fish boss, who went by the name Mr. Wang, prepared a particularly delicious yellow-mud-preserved duck egg, which, he told me, keeps at room temperature for 30 days.

The rest of the ingredients were harvested or foraged that day. Dai keeps leatherbound purchase diaries documenting the provenance of every chicken, tea leaf, mustard green and black fungus. Several entries are accompanied by photos of a farmer picking or slaughtering the item in question. Not a single thing I was served that day had been refrigerated.

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