In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
Moving food is important, as we've mentioned here before. Without food movement, people will starve, and without near-carbonless food movement, the world's efforts at climate change mitigation are likely to fail. One of the ways to move food with little to no carbon is through Sail Freight, which is a fitting subject for a maritime museum to talk about. So, what would a Sail Freight Future look like?
We can take some clues from the past, of course, about how a sail freight future might look. In this case, we can see rivers and coastlines dotted with the image of sails and ships at harbor, moving large amounts of cargo between the countryside and cities, and between cities themselves. We can see thousands of supporting jobs building and maintaining ships, making sails, ropes, tar, and pitch, and fittings for keeping ships underway. However, those clues from the past are unlikely to give us an accurate idea of what we will need and can accomplish in a future of sailing cargo.
First, we can’t simply revert to the past as the climate changes. Doing so is impossible, and shouldn't be desirable to begin with. Second, we now know more about the world than we did in the past, and can incorporate new sustainable technologies into modern sail freight. Our focus today will be reason number three: The world has significantly changed since Sail Freight was last common in the 1920s, and is now absolutely dependent on fossil fuels in both transportation and food production.
In a sail freight future, we will need to have a food system which is capable of dealing with the realities of sail freight, which include less precise timing of deliveries, longer travel times, and in many areas a seasonality currently unknown.
Less precise timing of deliveries means warehousing will have to come into more prominent use in the food system nearer to the point of end use for far more than just food. With a warehouse capable of holding several months' supplies, if a shipment is delayed due to contrary winds or a storm, no one goes hungry. The current practices of Just-In-Time delivery will have to be significantly changed, and the growth in warehouse jobs will likely be significant.
Longer travel times for foods also means certain foods might become less available in certain regions, leading to a re-regionalized diet. For example, the ability to import fresh avocados and lemons in winter to Maine or New York might not be possible. The same would go for tomatoes from California or strawberries from Florida. Since these foods would not be likely to make the journey in their fresh forms, other forms such as preserves, juices, dried foods, and others will take their place. Canned and Jarred versions of these products will likely come more into play, and localized production using innovative techniques will be important.
Lastly, the issue of seasonality fits into both of the above. For harbors with ice in parts of the year, warehouses will need to be big enough to hold the iced-in season's food needs for an area without resupply by water in that time frame, unless other carbon-neutral overland transport capabilities are available with the energy to operate them. The types of foods stored will have to be nonperishable, and storage will need to be properly designed for the environment.
For an example of the other changes which would need to be made for a Sail Freight Future, the sheer number of ships and crew members needed is significant. For just the minimum grain and potato supply of the New York Metro Area, the estimated fleet would need to be 1,357 ships with a cargo capacity of 111.25 tons each, and nearly 9,000 sailors. While larger ships would likely be more efficient in crew, this is not guaranteed. When adding all this up, a fleet of these ships which could supply the New York Metro Area's food needs could be built using all the shipyards in the US in a mere 20 years, if all these shipyards produced 4 ships per year. We would also need to train over 3,000 sailors each year to crew these ships.
Clearly, then, we would need to make changes to our shipbuilding capacity, train more welders, shipwrights, and so on, as well as sailors and captains. Then, the building of warehouses and docks would require labor as well. The task is not a small one, nor easy; it is, however, still achievable if we put our minds, our money, and our backs to it.
For those interested in foodsheds and local food systems, an excellent book is Rebuilding the Foodshed by Philip Ackerman-Leist.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
Tune in tonight for Steve's virtual lecture, "The History and Future of Grain Races!"
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