IF consumers switched to buying foods locally they would save £2.1bn a year in environmental and congestion costs, a new report claims.

Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the Full Cost of the UK Weekly Shopping Basket, saw Professors Jules Pretty and Tim Lang look at measuring the cost of inland and European food distribution.

They discovered that the environmental cost of foods travelling inside the UK to reach supermarket shelves was greater than that of air-freighted foods.

Concerned that that information is not readily available to consumers, they suggest that establishing better access to local foods and encouraging consumers to change their buying habits would offer substantial savings in environmental terms, greater even than switching to organic foods.

However, the good news is that there is already a great deal of support for the concept of buying locally.

Research for the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association (Farma), showed that almost nine out of ten households would buy locally produced foods if they had access to them.

Similar research by YouGov showed 30pc of households had visited a farmers' market and one third had used farm shops in the last 12 months.

Farma's managing agent, Gareth Jones, said: "What people can do immediately is buy more of their staple foods, primary and seasonal produce - meat, eggs, bread, fruit and vegetables - from their farmers' market or farm shop, or use box delivery schemes and reduce their visits to the supermarket.

"It's good news that saving the planet happens to taste very good indeed, with wholesome fresh foods from local sources. It's a matter of getting more people to take action to change their food buying habits," he added.

Mr Jones spoke of research at farmers' markets in recent weeks which showed that most customers were drawn from within a three-mile radius. "That is within cycling or even walking distance," he said.

Farma also extols the virtues of pick-your-own farms, of which there 1,000 countrywide.

Katrina Palmer is co-ordinator of the Local Food and Produce Initiative in Teesdale and Wear Valley and oversees the running of farmers' markets in the two dales. The markets are certified with Farma, and Ms Palmer wholeheartedly supported their comments.

She runs Bluebell Organics at Forcett with her partner, Steve Barker, which they have restored from a neglected kitchen garden into a successful organic green grocery business. As well as selling at farmers' markets they also run a box scheme in Teesdale and North Yorkshireand were featured on TV chef Rick Stein's Local Food Heroes programme as well as appearing in the accompanying book.

"Consumers who buy locally are contributing to the local economy, supporting their local town and producers, as well as preventing food from travelling miles before it reaches supermarket shelves," she said. "The easiest and most profitable way for farmers and small local producers is to sell direct to the public, cutting out the middle man.

"We do a box delivery scheme from our own business, where the produce travels about 20 miles at the most from where it is grown..

"But supermarket fruit and vegetables have to be sent to a main distribution centre to be packed and then sent back out again. That adds thousands of miles every year, all taking its toll on the environment."

For information about shopping locally, log onto www.farma.org.uk, www.farmersmarkets.net or www.-farmshopping.com.