Long Read: “What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming?”

From the “be careful what you wish for” files, Nicola Twilley, in the NYTimes:

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.”…

When Chen founded Sanquan, fewer than one in 10 of his fellow citizens even owned a refrigerator. In the eastern megacities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, it wasn’t until the late 1980s — as electrical grids became more reliable and families had more disposable income — that refrigerators became a fixture of most homes. For second- and third-tier cities, like Zhengzhou, they arrived even more slowly. But in the 12 years between 1995 and 2007, China’s domestic refrigerator-ownership numbers have jumped to 95 percent from just 7 percent of urban families.

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, & 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…

… 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…[B]y the late 1980s, as Chen was just beginning to wonder how his glutinous rice balls could make him rich, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first restaurant in China and began expanding across the country by building its own freezer infrastructure and trucking lines. Walmart jumped into the budding Chinese supermarket scene in 1996 with its own American-style chill cases and refrigerated distribution centers. 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. Around this time, the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney produced a report that both predicted and kick-started the country’s refrigeration boom. It projected that mass refrigeration would provide an added value worth $160 billion per year by 2017…

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.”…

Much more at the link.

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31 replies
  1. 1
    Violet says:

    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.”

    Wonder if that’s a food problem or a water problem.

  2. 2
    Jerzy Russian says:

    Waste heat from refrigerators and AC units is probably becoming a larger and large problem in the cities also, especially in places like Beijing and Taipei.

  3. 3
    Jerzy Russian says:

    @Violet:

    Wonder if that’s a food problem or a water problem.

    Yes.

  4. 4
    Scamp Dog says:

    Whenever I make it to an Asian grocery store, I always stock up on frozen dumplings of various sorts. The aren’t as good as the freshly made ones served at the dim sum restaurants, but boy they’re convenient and tasty enough. I haven’t really thought about the carbon consequences of my refrigerator, though. Mine dates from 2006 (I think–the condo was built then, and the neighbors have identical ones), so it’s fairly modern (I hope).

  5. 5
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Jerzy Russian:

    If it’s a food problem, I also wonder if the issue is counterfeit ingredients — there was a huge problem in China with companies adding adulterants to their food. They only killed our pets in the US by adulterating their food with melamine, but they killed babies in China.

  6. 6
    Scamp Dog says:

    @Jerzy Russian: I remember that from the room I rented in Taipei in 93 and 94. One window was to the front of the building, and the one on the side faced a window in the neighboring building with an AC unit. Being low-rent student types, we didn’t have AC ourselves. I generally liked Taipei, but the summer heat (seemingly 8 or 9 months of the year) were brutal.

  7. 7
    Hal says:

    Am I the only one who did not know you don’t have to refrigerate soy milk? A great lie has been perpetrated on the people.

  8. 8

    Not that China needs me to defend it but it seems a bit disingenuous to be pointing fingers at the Chinese and blaming them for warming the globe when one lives in the land of the SUV and unbridled fossil fuel use. I haven’t seen the numbers but I am pretty sure that the Chinese energy consumption per capita is much less than that of the United States.

  9. 9

    @Scamp Dog: TJ also carries a variety of dumplings.

  10. 10
    Another Holocene Human (now with new computer) says:

    @Scamp Dog: Haier mini fridges used to have a rep for using almost as much energy as a full sized fridge because they were so cheaply built, out of date tech and junky fittings.

  11. 11
    Not Adding Much to the Community says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: “it seems a bit disingenuous to be pointing fingers at the Chinese.” Read closer. The point is, the US is already built out; we’re more or less at maximum capacity for refrigeration. Nobody is ‘blaming’ the Chinese for anything, but pointing out that their emulating our supply-chain model is a Bad Thing for Everybody.

  12. 12
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Something like America is 6% of the population, yet consumes 25% of the resources. And some why the ChiComs(Rush lingo) look at us like we lost our minds.

  13. 13
    trollhattan says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    It is, which means individually we can more easily reduce our footprints, but China raced past us to lead the world in GG emissions knowing full well the folly of doing so. The effects will hit them sooner and harder, as well.

  14. 14

    @trollhattan: I am not sanguine about China at all, politically it is a black box, sooner or later it is going to explode with political unrest like the middle east has right now.

  15. 15
    Jerzy Russian says:

    @Scamp Dog:

    I generally liked Taipei, but the summer heat (seemingly 8 or 9 months of the year) were brutal.

    Yup, the heat and humidity in Taipei in July were much worse than even the east coast of the US. When I first went there there was also a lot of pollution from mopeds and small motorbikes. To their credit that type of pollution seemed to be reduced when I went there a second time.

  16. 16
    trollhattan says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    Agreed My feeling is once the middle class becomes sufficiently large and aware of how poorly they’re being led, we’ll see a Tiananmen Square redux country-wide.

  17. 17
    Arclite says:

    I never buy refrigerated soy milk. It’s stupid.

  18. 18
    Jerzy Russian says:

    @Mnemosyne: I imagine quality control is a large problem in China across many different industries. Just like it is with pollution, at some point the problem will become so large that the government can’t ignore it any longer.

  19. 19
    Starfish says:

    @Hal: I think it is more complicated than the author leads you to believe. Shelf stable soymilk like Eden Soy has been around for a long time and is not found in the refrigerated section.

    I have had things like Silk brand soymilk go bad (before the expiration date.) I have not had this happen in a while so maybe they have refined their process to be more like the one used by the shelf stable brands. But I wouldn’t go about unrefrigerating refrigerated soymilk because spoiled soy milk is really gross.

    It may have to do with the aseptic packaging. Most of the major brands do seem to have some shelf stable products, but the packaging for those products is different than the packaging for their refrigerated products.

  20. 20
    Gene108 says:

    We’ve known for a long time the environmental cluster fuck that is waiting to happen if the developing world ever developed and consumed resources like other developed nations. This is no shock to anyone, who has been paying any attention for the last few decades.

    But our global economy is very much built on the foundation of ever increasing consumption, so the changes we have to make are bigger than what business will allow.

    @trollhattan:

    The USA was the leader in greenhouse gas emissions for long time, Even now we are solidly in second place and still lead the world in per capita greenhouse gas pollution.

    If we set a good example by reducing our per capita greenhouse gas footprint, I can see us better positioned to offer useful advice to the rest of the world.

  21. 21
    Baud says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    I have the same apprehension.

  22. 22
    trollhattan says:

    @Gene108:
    We are, while they have their collective feet pasted on the accelerator.

    We don’t have time for somebody to “make the first move”–the situation is far too dire for a cotillion .

  23. 23
    shelley says:

    Ummmm, dumplings

  24. 24
    Cervantes says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    I haven’t seen the numbers but I am pretty sure that the Chinese energy consumption per capita is much less than that of the United States.

    Ours is 3.0-3.5 times theirs; ours is trending down; theirs is trending up.

    (Can’t be more precise at the moment.)

  25. 25
    Cervantes says:

    @Gene108:

    We’ve known for a long time the environmental cluster fuck that is waiting to happen if the developing world ever developed and consumed resources like other developed nations. This is no shock to anyone, who has been paying any attention for the last few decades.

    Exactly.

    And worse, a good portion of their energy consumption serves the export market, i. e., us.

  26. 26
    Bill Arnold says:

    Data center cooling is also a big deal; about 1/3 (usually a little more) of the electricity used by a typical data center is used for cooling. (About 1/3 of 40 gigawatts, roughly 14 gigawatts worldwide according to a couple of web sources, and growing.) I presume liquid cooling is (or could be) used where water is abundant (often in roughly the same places as hydro power).

  27. 27
    Citizen Alan says:

    @Hal:

    Am I the only one who did not know you don’t have to refrigerate soy milk? A great lie has been perpetrated on the people.

    I’ve never actually tried it, but I suspect it tastes better cold. I think I would gag at the thought of drinking room temperature milk.

  28. 28
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Bill Arnold:

    Somebody here used to work at a university in the 1960s or 1970s where they water-cooled their computers by running water from the swimming pool, which meant that they were simultaneously heating the swimming pool. Sounded like a win/win to me.

  29. 29
    Gindy51 says:

    Maybe they are using some new gases for that cooling: http://www.bbc.com/news/scienc.....t-26485048

  30. 30
    Gindy51 says:

    @trollhattan: No I don’t think so. I think the leadership will do what our uber rich have done to us, make use of our short attention span, keep crises coming left and right, and use things like ferguson to rip our social fabric apart. The more we fight each other, the less we see the damage they do.

  31. 31
    Anoniminous says:

    Test

    ©

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