Ocean trade is inseparable from modern life as we know it: thanks to it we get bananas for breakfast, cheap clothes, electronics and even perishable foods such as shrimps. Freight costs per ton by sea are one third of the price of the next cheapest transport mode, rail. The advancement of the steam engine in the 19thy century permitted the rapid development of the global shipping industry, which today is responsible for moving around 90% of traded goods. It simply made our world smaller and was an underlying condition of the emergence Britain’s global empire. See the below map from 1914 which showed you could be on the last frontiers of the British empire in only 40 days.
The explosion of sea freight over the past 2 centuries has come with serious consequences. It is estimated that the shipping industries contributes twice as much to global warming as the aviation industry (albeit for many more tons transported), and its emissions are set to increase by 75% by 2020. Ships are also responsible for great amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide pollution, which contribute to ocean acidification.
To reduce the reliance on sea freight, many people try to switch to short supply chains. This makes sense not only to reduce our environmental footprint, but also because of the uncertainty behind the long supply chains as shown by the horse meat scandal and the uncovering of Asian slave labour in the prawn supply chain. It is however difficult, or nearly impossible for some of us, to only consume local produce, especially in Belgium. Coffee, chocolate or rhum are not produced anywhere nearby Europe, so are there really any alternatives?
It turns out people are looking for them. I recently found out about Fairtransport and their rhum, cocoa and coffee transporting cargo sail ship called Tres Hombres. They sail from the Netherlands to Barbados and back over a few months, bringing back delicious cocoa, coffee and rhum in French wine barrels, which is then bottled in the Netherlands. All this is done without the use of an engine and therefore without green house gas emissions. The rhum is unfortunately not directly available at a retailed in Brussels, but you can order it online here.
While this initiative is not viable to replace sea freight just now, it is paving the way for a more eco-friendly freight industry, which could soon compete with conventional ships. It also encourages us to rethink how we consume. And even better, if you have the soul of an adventurous sea-farer, Fairtransport offers the possibility of joining them on one of their boats for a few days or even for months sailing across the Atlantic. While I am tempted to jump aboard I think I will stick to my bottle of Tres Hombres VIII year old rhum for now.