Sustainable transportation


Challenges of food transport in Canada

The policy environment and responses to current food system challenges

Transport solutions




Financing the transition


The global food system functions because of sophisticated transportation and associated logistics.  No longer does most of the food in a supermarket come from within a few hundred kilometers (Hendrickson and Heffernan, 2002).  Yet only recently has transport (rather than the broader international trade) become a significant part of the food system critique, largely through the lens of food miles and their contribution to GHG emissions (see for example MacRae et al., 2010; MacRae et al., 2013).  I expand on earlier treatments of the subject to include a wider range of changes in transport and transport policy that would enhance the sustainability and health promotion dimensions of the Canadian food system.

Historically, transport and transport policy in Canada was primarily about rail, though there was also attention to roads, canals and ports. Railroads were viewed to some extent as a public utility and a key part of the nation building process. Governments, although primarily laissez-faire in orientation, intervened significantly to shape the structure of rail and other transport because they believed that national development could not be left to the hands of private capital. Agricultural development was closely tied to transportation development post-Confederation (Britnell and Fowke, 1962). The shift to market-driven, rather than government-directed, transport started in the 1950s following a period when the railroads struggled financially and road transport grew.  Governments facilitated the rise of trucking through road building, in part to counter the monopoly power of the railroads and reduce state subsidies paid to them as part of the state’s intervention in rates (Prabhu, 1971).  The policy shift began to reposition transport as vital to economic efficiency, treat modes of transport neutrally so as to let market forces identify which mode was most efficient for any purpose. The emerging concept was that regulation would not restrict the ability of modes to compete for customers.  All this was codified in the National Transportation Act of 1967 (NTA67) and started the process of dismantling state subsidies and privatizing parts of the transport infrastructure. But the NTA67 was still primarily about railroads. Revisions in 1987 (NTA87) embraced a full range of modes, with competition and market forces the primary agents.  Much more emphasis was placed on motor carriers, primarily a provincial responsibility, but the federal government encouraged deregulation with the Motor Vehicle Transportation Act of 1987.  The renamed Canada Transportation Act of 1996 (CTA96) reinforced earlier versions of the NTA (Waters, 2005).

Although privatization and deregulation continue, a significant percentage of transport infrastructure remains public, with private transport actors using these public avenues of mobility.  Most roads are owned and maintained by the three levels of government, although private toll roads are now emerging.  Most motor vehicles, however, are privately owned.  The federal government largely controls airspace and major airports are owned by the federal government and leased to airport authorities[1].  However, there is no longer a national public air carrier.  Waterways are public and the national government lays claim to a 200 km marine zone based on international agreement. Transport Canada does control over 50 ports, but also has a port divestiture programme, so the number of public ports continues to decline (Transport Canada, 2012).  Most of the traffic on water, however, is privately organized. Some of the rail track system remains in para-governmental control, though much of the freight rail system has been privatized.

Transportation spending in 2011-2012 fiscal year by all levels of government totaled $19 billion (with the federal government at $2.8 billion).  The bulk of spending came from the, provincial and territorial governments (56% for capital improvements and 17% on transfers to lower levels of government).  Federal funding was for transit projects (15 per cent, not including gas tax funding), highways, roads and bridges (35 per cent), rail (25 per cent), and marine (15 per cent). Provincial and territorial spending went primarily to highways and roads (78 per cent), followed by transit (16%) and marine (2 per cent). These expenditures were offset, however, by receipts from transportation users (including fuel taxes, licenses and registrations), that totaled $16.9 billion for the federal and provincial/territorial governments. The federal government collected $5.0 billion from fuel taxes, almost all of it from road users. Provincial governments collected $8.6 billion in fuel taxes and sales tax equivalents (Transport Canada, 2012a).

Albeit significant, food is only one of the many goods transported in Canada.  Looking specifically at food transport is challenging due to the influence of policy and exogenous factors beyond the food system.  As well, the complexity of the food system is echoed in the complexity of food transport.  Food transport varies tremendously by product, by region, by supply chain, and by end use.  It has a different profile if the food is destined for domestic markets or export, or is being imported.  For example, shipping food within Canada for domestic consumption and to ports for export amounts to 65 billion tonne-km, 22% by truck, 70% by rail, and 8% by ship.  For imported foods, transport amounts to 61 billion tonne-km, with 68% by ship, 28% by truck, and 4% rail (Statistics Canada [2007] in Kissinger, 2012). Air transport in both scenarios is minimal on a tonne-km basis[2], though can be highly significant for specific actors.

Canada and the US also share many transport linkages and most of Canada’s imported and exported food comes from or goes to the US.  Pimentel et al. (2008) claim that food within the US is shipped 60% by rail and 40% by truck, with rail accounting for the largest percentage because it carries bulk grains, oilseeds and some packaged goods. A very small percentage is shipped via internal waterways and air.

Different modes of transport tend to be more dominant within certain segments of the food supply chain (see Table 1).

Table 1. Examples of food transport in Canada

Food system component Mode of transport Goods and processes (examples)
Input manufacturing and distribution Pipeline Oil to refineries for all transport modes across the food system; Natural gas for nitrogen manufacturing
Rail Farm equipment components
Intermodal Bulk fertilizer (phosphate rock), rail to ship to rail or truck
Trucks Day old chicks, piglets, seed
On-farm Tractors and other field equipment Field operations
Large and small trucks Farm operations and shipping off farm
Farm to processor Truck Live animals to abattoirs, tomatoes to cannery
Intermodal – truck, rail, ship Bulk grain to terminal via truck, rail to port, domestic ship to Montreal port for transhipment to ocean ship to international animal feed manufacturer
Farm to retail Refrigerated truck Produce to retailer’s distribution centre (DC) and then truck from DC to retailer
Intermodal, refrigerated truck and refrigerated air Very perishable fresh fruit (berries, cherries) for international markets
Intermodal, truck and cool ship NZ apples to Canada by truck, then cool ship to Montreal, then refrigerated truck to Ontario distribution centre, then truck to retail
Processor to retail Truck Refrigerated deli meats to distribution centre and then further trucking to retail store
Intermodal Packed cereal by container, truck, then rail, then truck, delivered to distribution centre, truck to retail store
Bicycle Specialty coffee to high end urban cafe
Retail to consumer Panel van Home delivery
Car Primary transport for shoppers
Public transit Primarily lower income shoppers
Walking Main streets shopping in neighbourhood
Food waste Garbage trucks Curbside pickup to sorting centre and anaerobic digestion
Humanure and urine Sewer pipes and trucking of sewage sludge Toilet, to sewage treatment plant, to truck for sludge removal (and sometimes spreading)

As strategies for reducing on-farm transport are connected primarily to farm redesign, I do not address this theme here.  Similarly, reducing impacts from pipelines is largely connected to reducing our reliance on energy in the food system which I’ve addressed in other work (MacRae et al., 2010; 2013; Lynch et al., 2011).  Food waste and humanure and urine have also been addressed in other work (MacRae et al., 2016).  Food system regionalization has been addressed in MacRae et al. (2013), McCallum et al. (2014) and Campbell and MacRae (2013).

Financing the Transition

A tremendous amount of public and private money is spent every year on transport infrastructure, ships, rail cars, trucks, co-ordination mechanisms and equipment, much of it designed to support international, rather than domestic, supply chains.  Ships have gotten bigger, canals have been expanded, tracks doubled or quadrupled, waterways dredged, airport facilities increased, ports retrofitted (see for example Danyluk, 2021 on the response to Panama Canal expansion). Admittedly, domestic supply chains can also benefit from such investments, but there are many examples of firms prioritizing international sales over domestic ones, and the scale of investment for international supply chains often exceeds what's required for the domestic market.  The current debate about expanding the Port of Vancouver is not about domestic requirements.  The labour dispute at the Port of Montreal is also connected to international markets.  The rail line to, and Port of Churchill, are very much about international markets.

So, as we transition to a more robust domestic economy, driven by Demand-supply requirements, what happens to all this internationally-focused infrastructure?  At this point, no modelling has been conducted based on the changes proposed here, so the exact nature of these changing investment flows can not be articulated. But the short answer is that it shrinks, or at least does not grow further. Expansions will not be required.  Investments that might have been devoted to international infrastructure can instead focus on needs for domestic markets. Domestic infrastructure will be of smaller scale and more spatially dispersed.  Fees, royalties and taxes collected by governments may shrink.  Acquisition of key infrastructure will cost governments as will subsequent maintenance, but the net flows will be lower because fewer grants and subsidies will be allocated as part of infrastructure expansion project funding. For example, according to Corkal (2021), the Alberta and federal governments in Canada have subsidized 3 pipelines to the tune of $23 billion since 2018 alone.  About $15 billion has gone to Trans Mountain and its expansion, and $8 billion to 2 other pipeline projects. All this suggests net costs for key pipeline acquisition can be significantly lower than gross costs, especially as oil and gas consumption shrinks. Given how heavily subsidized oil and gas is in Canada relative to other sectors, more modest, but significant, savings are likely with other key infrastructure acquisition of rail lines, ports and airports. A key part of financing the transition is shifting transport modes and efficiencies which will presumably generate revenues in new or expanding sustainable sectors.


[1] The next size tier of airports is certified by Transport Canada (TC) but not owned by the government, and there are many private airstrips not certified by TC but following its regulations.
[2] Weber and Matthews (2008) say 1-2 % of all food moved in the US and beyond is by air.