What is the role of transportation in sustainable food systems?

Back in 1999, my colleague Chris McGrory Klyza and I wrote in our book The Story of Vermont that at one point in Vermont’s post-colonial history, it could easily be described as “sustainable.”  This was in the 1700s and early 1800s.

After the mid-1800s, however, not so much.  What caused the transition?  In a word, transportation.  Once Vermont — or any other place in the world, for that matter — becomes connected to a larger region through an efficient transportation network, the limits imposed by the need to live within the regenerative capacity of one’s own landscape break down.

In Vermont, the development of a railway system that connected farmers to markets in Boston and New York City moved the people away from sustainability.  The development of the interstate highway system 100 years later only accelerated that trend.  While an environmental ethic continued to grow and take root, sustainability was lost.  Vermont is now as “green” as anywhere in the U.S. but it is as unsustainable as it has ever been.

I don’t believe that we will ever go back to being an isolated outpost of insular settlements.  But if we are to decrease the unsustainability of societies — here and everywhere — we have to think more creatively about the environmental costs of how we achieve our connectivity.

In that spirit, my curiosity is piqued by the Vermont Sail Freight Project.  A plywood ship, powered by sail, is sailing down the Hudson River to New York City, loaded with 15 tons of locally produced agricultural products (e.g., potatoes, grains, syrup) bound for the booming local foods markets there.  The organizers of this venture describe the ship, called the Ceres after the Roman goddess of agriculture, the “to” in “farm to table.”

I wholeheartedly applaud the creative thinking behind this project.  The organizers moved from identifying a problem (e.g., the carbon footprint of modern transportation networks) to analyzing the landscape in which the problem is manifest (in this case, the Hudson River Valley, which flows directly into New York City) to imagining a solution (a wind-powered barge).  And not incidentally, along the way they encountered the need to apply key leadership skills, included fundraising and team-building.

What I’m curious about is how, or even whether, this system can be scaled up to make any real difference to the sustainability of a place like New York City or the agricultural systems of a place like Vermont.  Rail and road networks were so successful because they scaled easily.  Can barge traffic along waterways do the same?

I hope so.  And I look forward to seeing what the future brings for this project.

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