The distribution of food across the UK in cars and lorries adds to pollution, congestion and climate change, a report by the government says.
The reports says food transport accounts for 25% of all truck traffic
It said the environmental cost of moving food was as much as £9bn a year, around half of it due to congestion.
The quantity of food moved by road has doubled since 1974, the report said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report said 25% of all miles covered by heavy goods traffic was to move food.
'Food miles' debate
And it showed consumers now travelled an average of 898 miles per year by car to shop for food.
Defra said the impact costs per year of food transportation break down as £5 billion due to road congestion, £2 billion due to road accidents, £1 billion due to pollution and £1 billion due to other factors.
The draft Food Industry Sustainability Strategy is part of a plan to help achieve a 20% reduction in the environmental and social costs of food transport by about 2012.
The report said the mode, timing, location and efficiency of food transport was as important as the distance covered.
Defra 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.
"It provides some pointers for consumers. For example, internet buying and home delivery can cut vehicle kilometres and reduce road congestion."
Lord Bach said buying local products had the potential to reduce the distance covered, but that those benefits could be compromised if the methods of distribution were inefficient and caused congestion.
The report also suggests better monitoring of air transport of food, because it was more responsible for the highest carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of cargo and was the fastest-growing sector.
It's great to have a figure put on the costs incurred by shipping food over great distances. I am always careful to buy food produced locally, if at all possible, and hopefully this will encourage others.
The basic infrastructure for a local food system is missing throughout the food chain - the lack of local abattoirs, the lack of distribution systems and the lack of a diverse retail profile all conspire to prevent a more localised and more sustainable food system emerging in the UK. We cannot speak of 'local food' unless we are prepared to create a local food infrastructure.
Kevin Morgan, Cardiff, Wales
We should place more emphasis on local produce and the French style farm markets and local shops. Unfortunately I think it's not only the shops and legislation that need to change but our whole food culture. We need to step back from the American fast food/micro culture and take a closer look at our European friend's examples.
Chris Johnson, Farnborough England
Local food, bought from the producer or out of the garden is generally fresher and tastier. Growers who supply local markets can concentrate on flavour rather than shelf life and appearance. Most people have forgotten what real food tastes like, so they have to eat food laden with artificial flavourings to make it interesting.
Alan Pinder, Bristol, England
For those of us without gardens, it seems to make more sense to have one van deliver to one street, rather than have 50 cars run shopping errands. Though legislation in reducing the air transportation of food is perhaps the more pressing issue in terms of air pollution and global warming, the consumer can play a part by buying fewer imported foods, which also implies eating food that is seasonal. For example, it is needlessly destructive and inefficient for a person in Europe to buy apples grown in New Zealand or vice versa.
Derwent, Paris, France
Whenever I can, I buy locally produced products of all types, but it is increasingly difficult. I would much prefer not to have to drive to buy my food, sadly local shops cannot always supply what I need, largely due to the unfair competition they face from the supermarkets... If food has to be sent miles to its point of consumption, could it not be distributed at smaller points along the way - possibly using some sort of mass transportation system that is more environmentally friendly?
Judie, Ware, UK
It would be really nice to buy local food from local farmers, but around Reading, there are very few farmers and very little open space which isn't taken up by housing development.
Kieron Bissett, Reading
I do not travel anywhere to buy food. I walk to our local whole food retailers and buy as much as my food as possible from there - most of it is sourced locally, or at worst from somewhere in the UK. I avoid buying food from other countries also. This also provides the added reduction of waste through packaging - as vegetables and fruit are purchased loose and can be placed in re-used bags. Buying local produce is a very important issue, if more produce was locally sourced, there would be a lot less environmental damage caused.
Tony Ayre, Lancaster
It's about time the government took this issue seriously. Whilst they are to be applauded for introducing a landfill tax to put pressure on business and consumers to recycle, they must now do something similar on food and consumer goods. What we need is a system that taxes suppliers for each km travelled by the goods they sell, with clear labelling on the package. This could also take account of the method of transportation if that is a significant factor. This would make local goods cheaper and encourage consumers to make the right choice.
Tom N, Taunton, UK
The "environmental cost" is £9bn a year, but the contribution to the economy that consumers make when they purchase the more expensive imported goods (that are impossible to produce locally) is orders of magnitude greater. China is trying very hard to move away from a subsistence/peasant lifestyle in the provinces, while we suggest to our citizens that they go back to it?
Harvey, London, UK
I've recently switched to buying as little food as possible from supermarkets, using a combination of food grown on my (new) allotment and buying seasonal produce from local farm shops. Net effect? Much less time in supermarkets, I'm healthier, my food costs massively less and tastes significantly better. And I know that I'm reducing food miles (especially jet miles) and making a tiny impact on the silly amount of lorries on roads.
Ian T, Kent
The government keeps coming up with these studies. So why don't they encourage more rail cargo? And why do they continue to pander to the supermarkets with their centralised distribution that could see food form your local farm travel 200 miles up the road, and then back again to your local store?
Rick, Brighton, UK