LectureSHIP – Reefers

The Portuguese were the first Westerners to fish for cod in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in the late 1400s. King Afonso V of Portugal came to an agreement with King Christian I of Norway, allowing Portuguese ships to find a northeast passage to the Pacific. In 1446, the Portuguese succeeded in finding a passage and from that point forward dominated the route of Terra Nova dos Bacalao, the New Land of Cod. Applying the ancient technique of salt-based curing to preserve their catch enabled them to transport their valuable cargo back to Europe. By 1508, Newfoundland cod represented 10% of all fish sold in Portugal.

When signing the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain on June 7, 1494, the Portuguese, seeking to protect this trade, negotiated the division of the world along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, which included their precious Newfoundland fishing grounds. As an aside, this meridian also cuts through the eastern quarter of Brazil. All of South America west of the meridian went to Spain, while Brazil, all thanks to cod fishing, went to Portugal and is the only Portuguese speaking country in South America. 

Today, perishable cargoes like fish, fruit and vegetables are shipped in temperature-controlled refrigerated containers known as Reefers. Cargoes like frozen fish, ice cream and concentrates are transported at temperatures below -20°C. Coffee, on the other hand, is transported in naturally ventilated containers so that the green coffee beans maintain their pure aromas and can be roasted to perfection at a coffee shop near you.

Reefers make it possible to transport temperature-sensitive commodities in large quantities across long distances all over the world. This allows consumers to enjoy fresh produce at their local supermarket all year round. Transporting food by sea contributes positively from an Environmental, Social, and Governance perspective as well. In the same way that revenue per ton mile is measured, which is an important factor in determining the profitability of shipping companies, emissions per ton mile is also measured: it is the distance travelled multiplied by the mass of food transported. According to an MIT publication, the ton mile greenhouse gas emissions transporting food by air is 47 times higher and by truck 10 times higher than transporting the same mass by sea.

Refrigerated containers took over from reefer ships about a decade ago because of their versatility; reefer containers are intermodal, suitable for road, sea, and rail transportation, they are self-contained refrigerated units, hence don’t require cold storage upon arrival at their destination and reefers can be partitioned to allow for storage of both frozen and chilled goods in the same container. Drewry, a leading maritime research consultancy, forecasts that seaborne reefer traffic will reach 156 million tons by 2024, representing average annual growth of 3.7 percent, clearly a plus for container ship owners. 

The 6-percent solution
Very little of global food is transported by air; this greatly reduces the climate benefits of eating local

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