Challenges Of Feeding The Planet: What Did Sailors Eat At Sea?

By Jenny Krusoe

Researchers want to go beyond diaries and journals to find out how ship diets worked. They want to make the food itself. On a boat.

According to a recent article in the on-line magazine, Atlas Obscura, “No one really knows if the food they were eating was really that bad, or if [diaries] were written by sailors who just really hated the food, or whose ship happened to get a bad batch of rations,” explains Grace Tsai, a PhD student specializing in nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University.

Research such as Tsai’s has implications for the future too, as we try to understand more about sustaining life on, by and under the ocean. This is a critical part of the work going on at AltaSea as we incubate and house businesses in sustainable aquaculture, undersea mapping and similar vital science, exploration and technology.

Past studies, according to Tsai, have tried to derive nutritional information based on historical documents, rather than in the lab, with little success. Which is why, since 2014, Tsai and her team of fellow PhD students have been preparing to make salted beef, ship biscuit, beer and wine as closely as possible to how they were made in the 17th century—right down to the type of ingredients and storage containers used. Next August, those foods will go on a simulated voyage in a real ship, and be sampled every ten days for nutritional and microbial analysis over a period of three months.


The hope is to paint the most accurate picture yet of shipboard food quality and sailor health at sea, said Tsai, the project’s director, which is jointly funded by the university and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Accurately making those rations will be no small feat.

There’s a reason past experiments have tried, unsuccessfully, to extrapolate nutritional content from modern day foods and ingredients instead. Making historical food in the present day is hard. The team has given itself over a year to test their methods and gather supplies.


To start, Tsai consulted manuals and cookbooks dating from the 15th to 17th centuries, which detailed various methods and guidelines for obtaining and preparing ingredients, as well as documentation kept by ships and ports. Unsurprisingly, some ingredients have been easier to track down than others. Ship biscuit, for example, was essentially just a cracker—”unrefined wheat, flour, mixed with water, sometimes a little bit of salt, sometimes a little bit of yeast, then it was baked twice,” Tsai explains—and so hasn’t posed much of a problem. But on the other hand, finding the right type of salt for the salted beef has been difficult. Tsai says they may import it from Europe, sans the human and animal remains, of course.

The beer is a little bit easier. Christopher Dostal, the project’s historical beer consultant, says historical recipes brewed today taste “surprisingly not as different as you might expect” because the ingredients and processes are in many ways the same. Nevertheless, while they know the water profile of their intended English Ale, which is specific to the location of where it was brewed, and the hops and grain that were likely used, the specific strain of yeast is impossible to know.


And then there’s the challenge of actually making the food. The team’s cattle specialist Meg Hagseth believes they’ve tracked down the specific breed of cattle, a Devon, which still exists today. But butchering the meat is another matter. In those days, if you cut too large, the salt couldn’t penetrate deep enough into the meat, and the meat would rot from the inside out. Too small, and you exposed more of the meat to oxygen, which caused it to degrade faster (and also, increased the risk of contamination, when you’re handling more meat directly).


In a related Salon article, climate change is threatening the sustainability of our current food production system. Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields, while creating ideal conditions for weeds, pests and fungi to thrive. More frequent floods and droughts are expected, and decreases in the water supply will result in estimated losses of $1,700 an acre in California alone. Because the agricultural industry is responsible for one-third of climate-changing carbon emissions, at least until Tesla reimagines the tractor, we’re trapped in a vicious cycle.

So how do we break out?

“We have to extinct outdoor farming,” Dickson Despommier, PhD, emeritus professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University and author of “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” told Salon. “We have to put the earth back to the way it was when trees were the most abundant crop. If we paid farmers to plant carbon-sucking trees instead of corn — what’s called carbon farming — the earth’s atmospheric makeup could be completely different in 20 years’ time. But this means looking elsewhere for a food source.”

In vertical farming, that food source starts with a building – any building – usually comprising more than one floor. On every level are flat racks of plants taking root not in soil, which is unnecessary for growth, but instead in a solid, sustainable, and pesticide-free substrate, like mashed-up coconut husk. In these hydroponic systems, plants are fed a nutrient solution from one of a variety of devices, including a misting nozzle, a slow-feed drip, and a wicking tool (like the volcanic glass called perlite) that carries nutrients from an in-house reservoir directly to the roots.

Catalina Sea Ranch is Alta Sea’s first business partner and another sustainable source of food. Catalina Sea Ranch will start by growing mussels on 100 acres and expects to have its first harvest in December, 2016. The company established the first offshore shellfish ranch in US federal waters and has secured a permit from the US Corps of Engineers to establish an aquaculture facility on the San Pedro shelf off the coast of Los Angeles.


The 40 square miles of U.S. Federal waters located on the San Pedro Shelf are ideal for all types of aquaculture operations having a consistent depth of 150 feet, strong flushing characteristics from upwelling, and benign weather conditions. Catalina Sea Ranch’s goal is to expand its 100-acre ranch to over 1,000 acres with science based data showing no negative environmental or social impact. Launching operations with low-risk, high profitable mussels – not susceptible to disease, no predators when suspended on ropes in the open-ocean and harvested 6 through 10 months after seeding – Catalina Sea Ranch intends to expand by cultivating other sustainable filter-feeding shellfish crops. Mollusk shellfish (scallops, oysters, and clams) are among the most lucrative and sustainable fisheries in the U.S. valued at $1 billion.

The $200 billion global aquaculture industry is the fastest-growing food-production sector in the world. Farmed seafood exceeded global beef production for the first time in 2011 and now provides about half of all fish consumed by humans.


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