Cuts of 20% in the £1.9bn social and environmental costs of domestic food transport by 2012 - between suppliers and supermarket shelves - are achievable, an industry group advising the government has concluded.
The Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS) Champions Group on food transport, chaired by Asda's chief operating officer, Dave Cheesewright, concluded that external costs - which include those for congestion, infrastructure and accidents - could be cut by reducing food miles or by making them "friendlier miles" - and identified six "big hitting" areas for action.
They were: the use of greater capacity vehicles; friendlier out-of-hours deliveries and engine specifications; better use of vehicle 'telematics' - electronic systems used to track and manage transport; transport collaboration; and logistics systems redesign. Combining these could produce potential costs savings of 17.3% and carbon dioxide reductions of 14.2%.
In particular, while the uptake of 'best practice' was "patchy across the industry", said the group, it identified it around local sourcing; the use of greater capacity vehicles; transfer of goods from road to rail; the use of alternative 'greener' fuels; and through better control of driver performance.
However, some barriers to uptake were identified, particularly around the use of greater capacity vehicles on Britain's roads, restrictions on delivery times, due to local planning decisions, and the uptake of vehicle management schemes through telematic control systems such as road pricing.
The group on transport was one of five champions groups to report back to ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Others included those on ethical trade, energy, waste and water.
A 12-week web-based consultation on the feedback from their reports began in the middle of June. This will, eventually, feed into government strategy via DEFRA's new Food Chain Programme, which is expected to kick off later in the year.
The transport group drew upon new research conducted by consultancy Faber Maunsell, which was asked to consider the external costs of food transport undertaken directly by the food industry itself.
It used models to examine the effects of different changes to industry practice on costs and carbon dioxide emissions.
Earlier research commissioned by DEFRA from AEA Technology had shown that since 1978 the annual amount of food moved in the UK by HGVs had increased by 23% and the average distance for each trip had increased by 50%.