Mike Small: Volcano crisis is our chance to abandon air freight insanity

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.

It 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.

What's stopping us? Plane stupid attitudes and the certainties of the one-dimensional world of profiteering.

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BA has now quantified the daily costs of the airspace closure at between 15 million 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 airlines believe they have a moral case for compensation from taxpayers. A moral case? Like the bankers' moral case?

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 were saved in five days by 60 per cent 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 these lines of trade.

Is there an alternative to globalised food? 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 throughout the country. The Fife Diet project has just passed its own target of 1,000 members – but it's happening everywhere. In Ireland Mick Kelly's GIY (Grow It Yourself) Ireland has gone viral with "gardening clubs" mushrooming at an astonishing rate. In Cornwall, Norfolk and Suffolk groups are mimicking the Fife model.

This isn't a movement of double-barrelled pheasant eaters. In Dochas, Westray, Knoydart and Lybster, in West Ardnamurchan, Hawick, East Kilbride and Shettleston, people are setting up community growing projects, 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 growth (47 per cent) in air freight movements in Britain, measured in tonne-kilometres, since 1980. We know that food accounts for 13 per cent 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.

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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.

• Mike Small is the founder of the Fife Diet.