We’ve had a glimpse of what a plane-free world would feel like: quieter, clearer, slower and vastly less polluting. But more than anything else the Icelandic volcano ‘crisis’ was (and possibly still is) the perfect opportunity to change our dysfunctional food system.

Eyjafjallajökull gives us an opportunity to stop the madness of inter-continental trafficking of high carbon foods. Given the global climate crisis we need to rapidly (re) create sustainable local food systems and face up again to the challenges of climate chaos and global warming.
Because – despite an eerie media silence on the subject during the week of no-flying – climate change is still here. Amidst all the naked propagandising of ‘sending in the Navy’ and ‘Dunkirk spirit’ we’ve forgotten that we still face the unfolding realities of climate change. Daily Mail readers look away – but the deniers’ greatest moment, Climategate, hailed by many as “the final nail in the coffin” of “the theory of global warming” has turned out to be as empty as Ryanair Boeing 737 last week.

A study by the House of Commons has forensically studied every e-mail from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and interviewed everyone involved. It’s findings? The “evidence patently fails to support” the idea of a fraud; the scientists have “no case to answer”; and all their findings “have been repeated and the conclusions have been verified” by other scientists. I must have missed the loony-right’s apology.

So what’s stopping us grabbing this chance for clear skies and a leap into a European sustainable transport network? Plane stupid attitudes and the certainties of the one-dimensional world of profiteering. BA has now quantified the daily costs of the airspace closure at between £15m and £20m per day. And it has confirmed that European airlines have asked the EU and national governments for financial compensation for the prohibition on flying. The BBC’s Peter Peston even wrote yesterday that: “The airlines believe they have a moral case for compensation from taxpayers, in that they have been deprived of the ability to make their own judgements about whether it is safe to fly.” A moral case? A moral case? Like the banker’s moral case? This is the airlines that fly tax-free.

But before we bail out the airlines let us consider this as a great opportunity not a crisis. How much carbon have we saved by closing the airways? One estimate showed 206, 465 tonnes of CO2 were saved in 5 days by 60% of air traffic in Europe being cancelled. That’s staggering. As well as cutting emissions the unpronounceable volcano has exposed just how reliant we are on remote lines of trade that sustain the core idea that we can just have whatever we want whenever we want it. We can’t.

Is there an alternative to globalised food, whether it comes by planes, trains or automobiles? As some people mourn the loss of their papaya chunks, and others worry that they won’t be able to fly from Birmingham to Liverpool for an important business meeting, others are digging out a re-localised alternative. There are local food projects emerging everywhere. The Fife Diet project has just passed its own target of 1000 individual members – but it’s happening across Scotland, Ireland and England. In Ireland Mick Kelly’s GIY (Grow Your Own) Ireland has gone viral with ‘gardening clubs’ mushrooming at an astonishing rate. In Cornwall, Norfolk and Suffolk groups are mimicking the Fife model. But this isn’t a movement dominated by double-barrelled pheasant eaters. In Dochas, Westray Knoydart and Lybster, in West Ardamurchan, Hawick, East Kilbride and Shettleston, people are setting up community growing projects and trying to re-locate their food system.

But while some enlightened souls are digging out a sustainable future, there was never any doubt who would win in a battle between profit and safety. Let’s hope for Willie Walsh’s sake that the airline moguls haven’t rushed us all back to belch in the sky too soon. One fast-descending jumbo would kill the golden goose for good.

Food miles are not just about air-freight, though this is the most damaging of all.

So what are the facts? We know that there has been a huge 47% growth in air-freight movements in Britain measured in tonne-kilometres since 1980. We know that food accounts for 13% of air-freighted goods worldwide. Air freight is part of the food-miles madness. Consider this, each year the UK exports. 49,000 tonnes of butter and then imports 47,000 tonnes back again. This is insane. We import 90% of our fruit, often when we have seasonal options here. Flying 1kg of asparagus from California to the UK uses 900 times more energy than the home-grown equivalent.

What else? Well we know that food is the average households number one contribution to climate change, responsible for nearly a third (31%) of our greenhouse gas emissions, and although air freighted food is a small amount of that total, it is significant and rising very very quickly. Why? Because all of our politicians are obsessed by the failed growth model and the export growth is best of all.

Writing philosophically earlier in the week Stewart Jefferies wrote that: “Air travel has banalised the globe; we could re-enchant it.” And, contemplating a world without planes: “If the skies don’t start filling up today as planned, there will be no Kenyan green beans, no mangetout nor sugar-snap peas: we will have to think about growing our own or even contemplating the (excuse my caps, but this is important) Death of the Stir Fry.”

Part of that re-enchantment would be waiting for the season and re-discovering what ‘enough’ means. We are on the brink of discovering profound socio-ecological change, that another world really is possible. We just need to put people and planet before profit.

2 Comments
  • ceridwen April 23, 2010 at 19:14

    Another world is indeed possible.

    When did we become so mentally dependant on planes anyway? One point the airlines seem to have missed – if we have a moral responsibility to ensure that they keep flying if at all possible (so that they dont lose income) – then whose moral responsibility is it if a plane crashes to Earth because it got damaged by volcanic particles? (bet they would try to lay that one on us as well……..)

    Anyway – so what about that bit of airfreighted food? Personally – I find it a lot more interesting to see what vegetables might be available that have been grown locally – and ask the growers for what ways they know of to prepare them. It feels a lot more creative to me….

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