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.
Humans have moved grains since time immemorial. This is partly because they're so easy to move, and don't require any other condition than dry storage for keeping. For the vast majority of the history of food, it was moved sustainably, but we're going to focus on both grains, and their long-distance transportation for this article.
Why do we move grains to begin with? The main answer is land availability. Clearly, cities don't have the wide expanses of land needed to grow cereal crops, which historically constituted the major part of most people's diets. Also, grains require little more than a dry place to be stored, with varying techniques used to make storage pest-proof, ranging from granary foundation designs to the pseudo-domestication of cats. As a result of easy storage and transport, grains are a perfect food to move from growing regions all around the world to where the price is better, and usually where the population is denser.
The other reason is water resources, as explored by Dermody et al. Areas with sufficient water can grow a large surplus of grains, and areas with stressed water resources can then import them as a way of conserving their own water. Taking grains from the water-rich Nile valley to the water-poor regions of Rome, for example, drastically increased the carrying capacity of the city.
In the Bronze Age Aegean, while there was some trade by sailing vessels in things like grains, mostly highly valuable cargoes of wine, metals, and glass made long-distance journeys. Navigation was difficult, required a high level of skill and specialization, and the additional element of multi-lingual crews and captains to communicate effectively with foreign trading partners. As this was a mostly pre-literate society, these circumstances created a barrier to long distance trade in bulk goods, but in short distance trade these commodities were moved routinely. In Egypt, for example, canals were dug to move grain more efficiently on boats around the Nile Valley and Suez peninsula.
As far back as the Roman Empire, we have documentation of a complex, highly efficient, and critical grain transportation network. The entire Mediterranean basin produced surplus grains which made their way to Rome, the largest city before the industrial age. With over a million inhabitants, Rome could not be supported by its own surrounding countryside, and was fed by grains from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Sardinia, Anatolia, and Gaul, as much as it was by any foods grown on the Italian peninsula.
Vast networks of ships plied the "Mare Nostrum" with some of them carrying as much as 500 tons of cargo, while most were closer to 100-150 tons. Most cargo vessels in the Roman world were powered by sail, but a significant proportion were powered by enslaved humans operating oars. As the Roman Empire declined, so too did the grain trade in its former territories.
The next large rise in Grain Trade came in the 17th century, at the dawn of the age of sail. As global empires rose once again in the West, and cities became far larger than they had been in the middle ages, the need for shipping capacity increased. More modern vessels, such as early Sloops, Schooners and other sailing Ships were being developed alongside the navigational tools which allowed for safer and more reliably repeated voyages into open ocean. This led eventually to a thriving Trans-Atlantic trade which involved large amounts of grain moving from North America to the Caribbean Sugar Islands and to European destinations. Locations such as New York, New England, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas supplied Wheat, Rye, Barley, and Rice to this trade, which increased through the 19th century. Eventually this trade was taken over by "Conventional" steam and oil powered ships through the 20th and into our current century.
There are some lessons for food systems and sustainable transportation today in the grain trade of the past. As with the discussion of trade in water resources mentioned above, we should examine our agricultural systems carefully. It may not be sustainable to export water-intensive crops from the desert Southwest to the temperate, water-rich Northeast, for example, no matter how zero- or negative-emissions the means of transport itself might be.
You can read more about the balance of grain and water trade in the Roman World in Dermody Et Al's 2014 paper here.
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.
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