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.
I'm willing to bet a lot of people clicked this article thinking something along the lines of "How about 'Towards Hiring A Proofreader, Eh?!'" Despite this, the title is accurate: The Food Movement lacks a clear strategy for moving food in a carbon constrained future from the farm gate to the citizen's fridge. I am very much talking about a social movement concerned with the physical movement of food.
There are a lot of studies out there about regional food self sufficiency, some dating from the 19th century, and others from just a few years ago. The topic of food sovereignty has been a matter of debate since the 17th century, and usually comes to the fore during and after armed conflicts and other crises which might result in embargoes or other interruptions to the food supply.
Far fewer studies actually touch upon how food is supposed to move between its points of origin and consumption. Even fewer touch upon how this can be done at the necessary scale in a post-carbon future.
How food was, is, or will need to be carried over land and sea through the use of self-propelled vehicles, trailers, barges, carts, pack animals, ships, or human powered systems such as bicycles is chronically under-studied. A great historical study of this overlooked element of food systems is Walter Hedden's book "How great cities are fed" from 1929. Without this transportation, food goes to waste and people starve. It is simply impossible for New Englanders to eat food which is sitting in crates on a Texas, Florida, Kansas, or California farm table for lack of transportation capacity.
Since the early 19th century, the world's food system has been entirely dependent on fossil fuels and regional crop specialization, as well as increasingly globalized. This fossil fuel dependence is not only for transport, and tractors working the fields, but for making the inexpensive steel for tools, which allows for mechanization, as a single example. Synthetic Fertilizers and Pesticides are also included in this agricultural fossil fuel dependency, as are the refrigeration capabilities which let us bring in fresh citrus from 2000 miles away out of season. Our entire transportation infrastructure, for both people and goods, relies on fossil fuels absolutely: Tires, fuel, steel, lubricants, polymers, and more are all made of, or with, fossil fuels.
With a carbon-constrained future rapidly approaching and demanding significant changes to transportation habits, this issue is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, it is routinely ignored in food system visions, which are normally published without direct and detailed attention to the distance and means by which food will be transported. Take New England, for example: A New England Food Vision by Food Solutions New England hopes to expand agriculture so half of New England's food is produced within the region by 2060. While an achievable and laudable goal, this plan doesn't tell us how tens of thousands of tons of food per day will arrive in New England from all over the world, all year round.
So, the need clearly exists for a Food Movement Movement. But how would it operate? What vehicle could possibly provide New England’s massive import requirements with oil- and electricity-independent, renewable, reliable, and emissions-free transportation without the need for paved infrastructure? The answer isn't terribly difficult to find for those who have studied the region's history: Sailing Vessels.
Visit any one of the dozens of Maritime Museums in the Northeast, and you can see there is plenty of tradition, knowledge, and capacity to supply the region's food imports by sail freight. By my calculations (Pages 74-78 Here), a mere 3,000 ships and 18,000 sailors would be able to meet New England's demand with room to spare for a small amount of delays, time off, and some commodities I hadn't included in the original math. This is with small vessels, too: A ship of only 111.5 tons cargo capacity, with a crew of 6.5 sailors was used as the rule.
It is eminently possible to build, launch, and crew these vessels over the next 40 years, while creating tens of thousands of jobs. It is also more than possible to use existing training infrastructure from organizations such as US Sailing to ensure a sufficient pool of skilled windjammer sailors are at hand to take them over the seas.
Far larger areas than just New England can be served by Sail Freight: Cities and towns along all four of the USA’s coastlines (Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Great Lakes) can benefit from Sail Freight, as can the massive regions of the Midwest served by our over 12,000 miles of inland waterways. As with any other such infrastructure ports, harbors, anchorages, channels, locks, dams, sluices, dry docks, weirs, inclined planes, and shipyards must be maintained every year, fully funded, and cared for. However, unlike other infrastructure investments, they are long term, lasting up to or in excess of 50 years for locks, and support carbon free shipping.
As we think of Slow Food, we should keep in mind the importance of moving that food around the block and around the world as sustainably as it was grown. With a bit of planning, civic involvement, prudence, and forethought, far more than just the slow food movement can benefit from the slow movement of food.
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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