The transportation of food across the country and around the world is costing Britain £9bn a year, a damning government report today shows.
The average Briton travels 898 miles a year by car to shop for food, and the importation of food is impacting on road congestion, accidents, climate change, noise and air pollution.
The sheer scale of the problem has prompted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to work with the food industry to try to reduce the environmental and social costs of food transport by 20 per cent by 2012.
Defra says road congestion costs £5bn, road accidents £2bn, pollution £1bn and other factors a further £1bn. One analysis of a basket of 26 imported organic items found that its contents had travelled the equivalent of six times around the equator. Lord Bach, the food and farming minister, said: "This study is an interesting contribution to the 'food miles' debate. The issue is complex and a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not purely the distance travelled by individual products.
"For example, internet buying and home delivery can cut vehicle kilometres and reduce road congestion. It is clear 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."
Vicky Hird , Friends of the Earth's food campaigner, 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.
"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."
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "This research is long overdue. Last year, I published research of my own which revealed how supermarket lorries travel the equivalent of two return trips to the moon every day.
"The Government must also lead by example with their own programmes, and cannot expect others to reduce food miles when under new schemes of its own such as 'fruit for schools' it is sourcing more than half of its apples and 90 per cent of pears from overseas suppliers. That is unacceptable behaviour."
The true cost
ORGANIC GREEN BEANS
£1.09/160g. Food miles: 4,200. Air-freighted
* United Kingdom
£1.49/500g. Food miles 200. Farmed in Britain, but since supermarkets buy centrally, clocks up road miles
£18.99/kg. Food miles: 4,400. From sustainable ocean fishery
* Scottish farmed
£6.90/kg. Food miles 350. Scottish fish farms have a reputation for pollution and overcrowding
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies