The City That's the Center of China's Massive Frozen-Food Industry

And the home of the world's only frozen-dumpling billionaire.

A frozen food plant in China (Reuters)

Scientists call the frozen parts of the Earth the cryosphere: the arctic, the Antarctic, tundra permafrost, glaciers high on mountains. Global warming means the ice is slowly melting, but there's a lot of it.

At the same, humans are freezing more and more space. The same energy-intensive, fossil-fuel burning industrial technologies that contribute to climate change also allow humans to refrigerate an ever-greater volume of the Earth.

Writer Nicola Twilley calls this "network of artificially chilled warehouses, cabinets, and reefer fleets" the artificial cryosphere, and her work has detailed many of its fascinating intricacies, and its importance in "reshaping both markets and cities with the promise of a more rational supply and an end to decay, waste, and disease."

In a new piece for the New York Times Magazine, Twilley goes to the new center of the artificial cryosphere: Zhengzhou, the home of Sanquan, a sprawling empire of frozen food built by Chen Zemin, "the world’s first and only frozen-dumpling billionaire." (Sanquan, Twilley notes, "is short for ''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.")

In one of Sanquan's factories, 5,000 workers pump out 100,000 dumplings an hour. That's 400 tons of dumplings every day. Sanquan and its chief rival Synear, also headquartered in Zhengzhou, control two-thirds of the country's frozen food market. The size of the industry has boomed, Twilley tells us, as the number of urban Chinese households with a refrigerator went from the single digits in the mid-1990s to 95 percent now.

And like everything else multiplied by the size of the Chinese population and the growth of its economy, the numbers get staggering quickly. "China had 250 million cubic feet of refrigerated storage capacity in 2007; by 2017, the country is on track to have 20 times that," she writes. "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." Per capita, that would still only be one-third of the refrigerated space that we have available in the United States.

Why does that matter? Cooling uses 15 percent of the world's electricity. And electricity, especially in China, runs on coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel. And when the gases used in refrigerators leak, they are a more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

A larger Chinese "cold chain," as refrigerated systems are known in the industry, will change what China eats, and the profile of its energy usage. "Of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now," Twilley concludes, "perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat."

The epicenter for that change might just be Zhengzhou, which I've marked on a map here. It's a city that a vanishingly small number of Americans could spot on a map in a region of China far from Beijing, Shanghai, and the coastal images of urban china we know. (The map software itself declined to label the city at any zoom scale.)

Where Zhengzhou is (Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0. Data by OpenStreetMap, under CC BY SA.)

And what looks like industrial change happening in this place will have lasting repercussions that extend far beyond the technical domain to the cultural one. When refrigeration comes to a place, the definition of freshness changes. The biological reality of seasonality can be suspended at will.

"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," she writes. "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."

What's fascinating about freezing things is that refrigerators are time machines: They allow organisms from our present to be travel into the future without changing in natural ways. Cold slows biological time. That's why bacteria can't grow as well in a fridge. That's why women freeze their eggs. Cold is our weapon against life's inexorable clock.

And yet the more stuff we freeze, the more time we control, the faster we push the planet's biosphere into disarray through climate change. What we can arrest now, at the cellular level, generates problems at scales unimaginably larger than microbes or embryos.