Food miles cost Britain £9 billion every year
Transporting food is costing Britain an estimated £9 billion every year according to a report looking at the economic and environmental costs of food miles.The report, published by Defra, goes on to say that importing food and moving it from the countries farms, factories and ports to our tables is producing 19 million tonnes of CO2 annually.
Over half of these emissions are in the UK and account for almost two per cent of the nation's total.
More than half of the cost stemmed from road congestion, with shopping by car accounting for an incredible 40% of the total cost and lorries making up a further a 25% of the total.
Road accidents and the fast-increasing pollution from air freight were also key areas of concern.
Sustainable Food and Farming Minister Lord Bach said: "This study is an interesting contribution to the 'food miles' debate.
"It shows that the issue is complex and that a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not purely the distance travelled by individual products.
"We will update and publish these trends each year and I hope it will lead to a healthy debate between consumers, food producers, supermarkets, environmental groups and public authorities.
"It provides some pointers for consumers. For example internet buying and home delivery can cut vehicle kilometres and reduce road congestion.
"It shows that buying local products has the potential to greatly reduce the distance food is transported but that the benefits can be offset by increased road congestion if they are supplied in a less transport efficient way.
"It is clear that organic and seasonally-available food can reduce environmental impacts but that these can be offset by the way they are transported to the consumer's home.
"It is also clear that transport and trade of food has the potential to lead to economic and social benefits, for example, through economic gains for both developed and developing countries, reduced prices for consumers and increased consumer choice."
The report also argues that local food did not necessarily mean less food miles and congestion, as farmers would make multiple trips in small vans rather than a single journey in a large lorry.
But environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth said words were not enough and it wanted to see the Government take more concrete action to address the issues raised.
FoE's food campaigner, Vicky Hird, said: "At last the Government appears to have woken up to the huge environmental and social impacts of transporting our food.
"But unfortunately it still appears to be unwilling to take adequate action to tackle it. Asking the food companies to make lorries a bit more efficient is irrelevant when those lorries are making unnecessary journeys.
"To suggest that locally sourced food may generate more food miles is ludicrous.
"Locally produced food is far better for food miles, but it must be planned and supported by local and national government to find the most efficient methods available.
"The Government must get tougher to reduce food miles. Unless it tackles this problem the impacts will become worse and Government targets to reduce carbon dioxide levels will be much harder to achieve."
She told edie that possible solutions might include centralised food hubs on the edge of major conurbations where food is stored before being efficiently distributed to outlets during off-peak times, rather than large numbers of vans and lorries driving in and out of towns at all hours.
"We need a more regional focus for food and it's going to take a lot of investment," she said.
"Farmers can't be expected to take those risks themselves, when a lot of them are already living on the edge of bankruptcy. "Government and industry need to invest."
The French model, where supermarkets are obliged to source produce locally where they can, might be worth looking at, she said. "It's a good idea, but it is only part of the solution.
"Supermarkets have very strict standards and will only pay certain rates for produce, so you are going to be hard-pressed to get them to do that."
She said farmers markets were another French import that should be promoted.
"They have 36,000 farmers markets in France, and just 5,000 here," she said.
"We need more as they provide the perfect outlet for local produce and increase consumer choice."
Another way to make progress would be to encourage the use of local produce in publicly-owned buildings.
"They've actually got a few schemes around the country for helping farmers to develop processing and marketing schemes to get food into local hospitals and schools," said Ms Hird.
"But there are not nearly enough, it's just a drop in the ocean and we need a lot more of these schemes."
By Sam Bond