Over the weekend, New York Times Magazine published a fascinating piece about China’s move into mass refrigeration. The good news? The spreading of refrigeration and cold storage in China is helping to cutdown on food-borne illnesses and food waste. The bad news? Those refrigerators and freezers are about to have a major impact on global warming.
We suggest reading Nicole Twilley’s NYTM piece in its entirety—it offers insight into global food history and our collective future. Below, we present a few of the highlights of the report.
China is currently undergoing a massive refrigeration revolution.
In the late 1980s, major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou—cities with the most modern and relatively stable electrical grids—saw individual home refrigerators rise in popularity. For less densely populated cities, the process took longer. The NYTM piece notes that between 1995 and 2007, refrigerator ownership numbers jumped from just 7% of urban families to a whopping 95%.
This timing dovetailed perfectly with Chinese inventor (and frozen dumpling billionaire) Chen Zemin’s freezer tinkering. According to the NYTM piece, this trained surgeon tinkered with electronics and gadgets his entire life. After he taught himself how to cook, he eventually developed and patented a way to quickly freeze his beloved glutinous rice balls and homemade dumplings without compromising taste or quality. He now owns the largest Chinese frozen dumpling company in the country, called Sanquan. Zemin currently has seven factories throughout the country; the largest one employs 5,000 workers and produces 400 tons of dumplings per day.
Here’s a little global refrigeration background: History Magazine notes that a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore first coined the word “refrigerator” in 1803—but the device for which we used that name wasn’t invented until the early 20th century. Various cultures around the world had used myriad refrigeration techniques to keep drinks cold prior to that invention, of course. The earliest known instance of such refrigeration was ice harvesting and storage by China some time before the first millennium.
By contrast, widespread refrigerator use didn’t sweep the U.S. until the 1950s. Twilley notes that the very first mechanically cooled warehouse in the U.S. opened in Boston in 1881, and that the first fast-freezing machine (important because it maintained taste and textural quality of frozen foods) was invented by a Brooklynite named Clarence Birdseye in 1924—you probably know his name from scanning the freezer isle at your local grocery store.
Expansion of refrigeration in China could improve food safety.
China’s growing cold chain—the refrigeration chain that goes from production to transport to home refrigeration units—can undoubtedly help with certain problems. Food safety expert Mike Moriarty investigated, and discovered that on average, a modern Chinese person “experiences some kind of digestive upset twice a week.” He attributes this to low-level food poisoning caused by bacterial growth that wouldn’t be a problem if food was consistently kept cold.
Unfortunately, there are gaps in the current cold chain. Twilley’s piece notes that 70% of U.S. food travels through our cold chain, from growth/slaughtering/processing to transport to retail to our home refrigerators and freezers. By contrast, in China, that number is less than 25% for meat, and less than 5% for produce.
But refrigeration doesn’t necessarily lessen food waste.
While the U.S. currently leads China in terms of cold chain efficiency, both countries currently throw away about 40% of the food produced. The difference is not in the amount, but in when we throw it away. In China, because the cold chain isn’t fully developed, a lot of food can’t sell quickly enough to avoid going bad and being thrown away.
Meanwhile, Dartmouth college professor Susanne Friedberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History, says, “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.” Food waste expert Jonathan Bloom even went so far as to say that in the U.S., home refrigerators “serve as cleaner, colder trash bins.”
Also, refrigeration increases global greenhouse gas emissions.
Way no. 1: Twilley estimates that that power generation for both warehouse electricity and diesel fuel for trucks to keep the cold chain intact consumes nearly a sixth of global electricity usage. It also makes up about 80% of refrigeration’s total global-warming impact.
Way no. 2: Refrigerants (the chemicals responsible for keeping cold foods cold) currently in use inevitably leak into the atmosphere at differing rates. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are popular worldwide, and Twilley cautions that they’re known as “supergreenhouse gasses” because they’re thousands of times more warming than carbon dioxide. She goes on to say that experts project high fructose corn syrups to be responsible for nearly half of all global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
And not all produce fares well in the “cold chain.”
Slow food advocates in the Western world lament how we’ve lost some of our own traditional food preservation methods, despite the rediscovered hotness of pickling anything and everything. But China has some of the oldest food preservation methods known to the world, and China prides itself on having a huge regional variety and specificity of produce. For a true cautionary tale, witness the story of the humble potato: today, we only know the tiniest fraction of the 5,000 or so varieties that the International Potato Center in Peru has managed to preserve.
You know the sadness of the mealy, white supermarket tomato: bright red on the outside, but white and pale and flavorless on the inside. The rise of heirloom varieties has brought back some flavor and seasonality to our tables, but it took decades of boring tomatoes for us to start reconnecting with our taste buds. The sad fact is, not all produce travels well in an established cold chain. We’ve been there as a culture, and that’s a problem that China is just now starting to experience.