Challenges of food transport in Canada

Much food transport is brilliantly implemented.  That fresh cherries move from the Okanagan Valley of BC to Shanghai in 24 hours (Anonymous communication, BC cherry grower, 2003), or that strawberries shipped by truck from the Central Valley of California arrive in Toronto in 40 hours (Porter, 2009), are triumphs of logistics.  However, such triumphs come with many challenges and costs that only now are being actively acknowledged and addressed.


GHG emissions and energy inefficiencies

The dependence on fossil fuels and energy inefficiency of most transport modes is widely recognized.  Transport modes for all goods account for roughly half of global oil and nearly 20% of world energy usage, of which 40% is utilised in urban transport. Since 2000, transport emissions have risen annually by nearly two billion tonnes of CO2e, with freight generating 20-60% of local transport-based pollution (IEA 2013, p. 6, cited in ENCLOSE, 2014).  Of these modes, road transport is the most problematic. According to Transport Canada (2012), road transport used 85% of the transport sector energy in Canada and accounted for 82% of domestic transportation-related GHG emissions and nearly 20% of total Canadian GHG emissions. Between 1990 and 2010, GHG emissions increased by nearly 40%. Increased passenger-vehicle activity, a shift toward less efficient light trucks and SUVs, and more freight moved by trucks rather than less emitting modes[1] are all implicated in the increase.

Looking more precisely at food transport, Weber and Matthews (2008) concluded that transportation - from inputs to final delivery - accounted for 11% of total food system GHG emissions in the USA. Wholesaling and retailing of food accounted for another 5%, with food production accounting for the vast majority (83%) of total emissions. They also concluded that about 25% of transport emissions in the food supply chain are associated with final delivery.  In their US analysis, about 11% of transport emissions were associated with the fruit and vegetable sector.  In Canada, food miles are also particularly associated with the fruit and vegetable sector, with 92% of imported fruit traveling more than 1500 km and 22% beyond 7000 km (Kissinger, 2012).  Much of the first category includes truck shipments from the US, given that close to 57% of all US - Canada trade (in and outbound) was shipped by trucks in 2012 (Transport Canada, 2012). MacRae et al. (2013) concluded that reducing emissions along the fruit and vegetable supply chain is one of the most promising GHG reduction strategies in the food system when production, transport and cooling inefficiencies are targeted.  Globally, when upstream emissions are also accounted for, food transport is now thought to be responsible for 19% of total food system emissions (Li et al., 2022).

Although road transport is the biggest contributor, other modes have their problems.  Air freight is only a small percentage of total food freight, but has the highest emissions per tonne-km.  Much of the current focus in air freight is on improving airplane designs and developing biofuels. Fuels derived from used cooking oil, jatropha, and camelina have all had test flights.  However, the LCA of such biofuels suggests energy efficiencies may not be improved once land use changes are factored in (unless land use decisions are highly ecologically managed and not based on market forces, see MacRae et al., 2010; Bailis and Baka, 2010).  Some have suggested (Monbiot, 2007) that only 20% efficiencies are possible, and only major reductions in airplane use will significantly reduce emissions. Ships are much better on a tonne-km basis but so much is moved by ship that the total emissions may be the same as airplanes, with attendant significant water pollution (Winchester, 2010).  Rail emissions are intermediate between ship and truck on a tonne-km basis (Edwards-Jones et al., 2008), but energy efficient and pollution reduction improvements could significantly lower rail’s footprint.

Other pollutants

Oceans and seaways continue to suffer major pollution from boats and the bulk of current ship stock is still quite energy inefficient, with some improvements and many new designs in development (see below). Invasive species in ballast water remain a significant challenge.

In 2010, road transportation accounted for 37.9 per cent of transportation-related CO emissions, 17.3 per cent of NOx emissions and 42 per cent of VOC emissions. Passenger-vehicle activity accounted for the majority of road transportation GHG emissions (66.5 per cent) and, being mostly reliant on motor gasoline, of SOx, VOC and CO emissions (68.6 per cent, 92.9 per cent and 96.7 per cent of road emissions). Freight activity, which is mostly dependent on diesel fuel, contributed to the majority of PM2.5 and NOx emissions (75.4 per cent and 54.2 per cent of road emissions). Between 1990 and 2010, CO emissions grew by 38.1 per cent, VOC by 30.6 per cent, PM2.5 by 24.8 per cent and NOx emissions by 44.1 per cent (Transport Canada, 2012).

Air pollution from planes is very significant, especially emissions from fuel combustion around airports. Benzpyrene, soot, NOx and lead have all been identified as significant hazards (EPA, undated).  There are also significant high altitude impacts associated with pollutants and vapour emissions.  However, not much of that is from food freight compared to passenger traffic and other freight.

Rail pollution is primarily from polyaromatic hydrocarbons (associated with lubricants and creosote), heavy metals (Wilkobirski et al., 2011) and diesel fuel combustion products, particularly soot (Hawthorne and Richards, 2014). Proximity to lines and rail yards typically increases exposure.  Wheat, canola, potash and other grains are 4 of the top 10 freight commodities, representing collectively about 18% of all freight tonnage in 2009.  A significant percentage, thus, of that pollution is coming from agricultural freight.

Food waste

As elaborated in MacRae et al (2016), high levels of food waste in the western world are in part a result of long distance food transport, directly in losses that invariably occur along complex and distant supply chains dependent on effective cooling, and indirectly in the ways constant availability of foods (many transported long distances) contribute to feelings of abundance (at low prices) for many eaters which, in turn, results in less attention to timely consumption.  Household waste accounts for about 30% of food system waste, but the causal forces are frequently rooted, not the household, but in processes in other parts of the food chain including transport.

System inefficiencies and coordination problems

The shift in transport policy dating from the 50s is tied to the idea that markets can efficiently allocate transportation resources.  But there are many indications this is not happening.  Some examples follow, with implications for food and environment themes.

There are longstanding monopoly / duopoly problems in the railroad sector, going back to the early days of the country.  “Of total Canadian rail transport industry revenues, CN accounts for over 50% and CPR for approximately 35%. Together, CN and CPR represent more than 95% of Canada's annual rail tonne-kilometres, more than 75% of the industry's tracks, and three-quarters of overall tonnage carried by the rail sector .... Some 36 shortline and regional railways operate in Canada. In 2010 they accounted for 22.2% of total kilometres of track ... and $655 million in revenues......” (Transport Canada, 2012b).  The recent rail problems on the Prairies reveal much about the failures of market-based coordination in this environment. Certainly, a larger-than-normal 2013-2014 crop and a cold winter contributed to the difficulties, but complaints about rail service long predate the 2013-14 crop year. The NTA67 has been blamed for triggering the abandonment of many rail lines and elevators, and other elevators have recently only had one service provider[2]. Many farmers are obliged to truck their grain and oilseeds to more distant elevators.  It’s not obvious that the railroads prioritize grain and oilseeds and they do likely penalize more remote locations and minor crops (Cross, 2015).  This is already evident in their lack of willingness to serve eastern ports with grain because it makes it more difficult to bring their rail cars back into service.  Their priority is moving grain to Vancouver.  Regulatory measures under the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act required the railroads to ship a specified minimum amount of grain per week (recently relaxed), but it is not clear this approach worked, and it appeared to penalize smaller shippers and railroads (White, 2015a).  To some extent countering the intent of this regulatory requirement, there are also revenue caps for the railways from moving grain (under the CTA). Compounding these problems is the lack of supply–demand coordination in grain and oilseed production.  Farmers decide how much to grow based primarily on crop prices, so there can be wild swings in planted acreage from year to year, and weather conditions typically have a huge impact on yields, with both realities not always well predicted. The railways are very dependent on government and commodity groups for intelligence on crop production and say that the data is difficult for them to assemble in ways that facilitate efficient use of rail infrastructure (White, 2014a). The problems of 13-14 forced more grain into trucks to the US, with attendant emissions increases relative to rail. Many actors are now calling for more supply chain coordination (White, 2014b) but many of those making this call had earlier advocated for abandonment of the very mechanisms that provided coordination in the past, including the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) single desk authority, a publicly-owned CN, and farmer co-operative grain pools[3].  One additional sign of the co-ordination difficulties is that the Canola Council of Canada wants to dramatically increase production but it does not appear that the transport infrastructure exists to support such expansion, with one transport industry player concluding several years ago that Prairie crop transport faces a decade of tumult because of lack of timely infrastructure investment (White, 2015b,c).  This has proven to be true, though not necessarily just for the reasons articulated in the mid-2010s.

Trucking has become the main freight mode for food delivery because the US-Canada rail connections (South–North) are not as developed as they are east –west (Kissinger, 2012). This also has implications for efforts to enhance multimodal delivery, since there is too much dependence on trucks (Metrolinx, 2011). Even when truck/rail intermodal exists, it is usually quite isolated from marine ports, which compromises integration. Since trucking fleets are private and competitors, there is limited coordination across the sector.  The trucking sector is volatile, reflected in 155 trucking bankruptcies in 2012, representing an 18 per cent reduction from 2011 (Transport Canada, 2012a).  These conditions have contributed to freight sprawl and inefficient land use and freight node congestion (Higgins and Ferguson, 2011).

The retail sector in urban centres is 30-40% of urban freight, with often highly fragmented locations served by truck primarily with partial loads.  The hotel and restaurant sector, in particular, often relies on just-in-time deliveries which typically means small loads. These realities lead some to feel that movement out of road transport will have to be implemented because of problems with congestion and sustaining road infrastructure.

Prior to the crash of 2007-08, many shipping companies put in orders for new large ships. The Baltic Dry Index[4] was at record high levels but then crashed to extremely low levels as freight volumes shrunk dramatically and today remain significantly below pre-crash levels.  As these ships come on stream, a major glut in shipping capacity results, with suboptimal loading a common outcome as ships chase orders.  Bankruptcies and consolidations among firms and ship yards have increased since the crash.  Ships last about 25 years, so this glut is not likely to disappear quickly. Corporate concentration is on the rise in the global shipping sector, with 3 "alliances" (THE, 2M and Ocean) now dominating and having increasing influence over the logistics of ports.  Their decision making often favours high value good and routes, which often does not include bulk agricultural commodities (Sinclair et al., 2021).

The growth in containerization as a percentage of total freight puts pressure on inland transport logistics to improve efficiencies and reduce transport-related waste.  It also changes port priorities, for example the Port of Vancouver appears to be favouring merchandise goods in containers over food that isn't shipped via container, reducing shipping options for food firms (Briere,  2020).  Seaway containerization is erratic, with many importing firms, upon arrival by ship at Montreal, shifting containers to rail and truck. However, it appears that much of the imported seaway freight is not food (with sugar coming into Toronto being an exception). The St. Lawrence Seaway cannot handle the size of many modern container ships.  Export-bound grain is often shipped along the Seaway, then transferred to larger vessels in Montreal, but there are reports that more Prairie grain is coming by rail to Montreal and Quebec City rather than by Seaway (Higgins and Ferguson, 2011).

Shipping companies often control containers and their allocation which means private decision-making about what gets moved and when. Shipping companies are reluctant to have their containers spend much time in the Prairie interior.  Specialty grains, canola and lentils are affected.  Perhaps 20% of containers were empty backhaul (Rodrigue, 2012), but  COVID has significantly aggravated problems of container availability (see Get started, Problems, Lack of Resilience). The National Supply Chain Task Force (2022), focusing primarily on import and export, has essentially acknowledged the lack of resilience in our increasingly privatized transport system because it is calling for significant government intervention of the kind that has previously been employed (including financing, penalties, regulation, subsidies) to compensate for the very significant market failures of the last few years in the transport system.

Unfortunately, there have recently been significant investments in air freight infrastructure around the world, including dedicated zones for import/export approvals.  An extensive chill chain infrastructure is also required to support it and this typically has significant energy inefficiencies (MacRae et al., 2010).  Other problems with the current approach include that dedicated air freight planes can return empty. Growing luxury crops for air freighting to the industrial north is widely criticized as a maldevelopment model, and it’s not clear to what extent small scale producers in the Global South actually benefit. There’s some indication of a “race to the bottom” amongst competing exporting countries with downward pressures on wages and upward pressures on subsidies, including allocation of prime free land to investors (Food Ethics Council, 2008).

Just-in-time delivery and other coordination challenges put more pressure on logistics.  Inventory reduction means higher shipping costs.  All the complications discussed above have helped create 3rd and 4th party logistics providers. The 3rd party providers control 40% of TEU in transit in maritime shipping and are becoming a bigger part of inland shipping as well (Higgins and Ferguson, 2011:21). Fourth party providers do not control assets, but rather provide consultation, planning and coordination. Their existence speaks to the need for greater coordination across transport sectors.

Food quality

There is some evidence of declining nutritional value in some fruits and vegetables transported over long distance associated with early harvest to meet processor, transport or cosmetic requirements and lengthy periods between harvest and consumption. There can be up to a three week discrepancy between harvest date and optimal levels of vitamin C in some vegetables (Shewfelt, 1990). With Canada’s reliance on trucked fruits and vegetables from California, there can often be a 5-10 day gap between harvest and consumption, with possible losses of some nutritional constituents in the 30-50% range (Klein, 1987). Does it matter if long-distance transport compromises nutritional value? Probably not for the majority, but most Canadians do not meet guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption and there exist higher risk populations for whom such losses could be significant.

Animal food quality and welfare

Since in the dominant production model, few animals are born, live their entire life and then die on one farm, most animals are transported at some point, if not several times. In Canada, there is extensive trade in live animals both domestically and with the USA. Most animal transport occurs by truck, with some rail. Exports to the US were primarily cattle (over 1.2 million head in 2014[5]) and pork (nearly 5 million head in 2014[6]).  There is an extensive body of literature on the negative effects of long distance transport on animal welfare and ultimately the quality of their meat once slaughtered (Appleby et al., 2008; Perez et al., 2002). Some of these problems can be mitigated with best practices that reduce stress on animals, but transport is an inherently unnatural process for animals. See Goal 9, Human Relations with Animals for more.


[1] Per tonne-km, ships are the lowest emitting, followed by rail and large trucks.  Small trucks and airplanes have the highest emissions (Edwards-Jones et al., 2008).
[2] Note that the interswitching provision of the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act in effect from 2014-17 appeared to effectively expand the number of elevators serviced by more than one railroad, but these provisions were not extended after 2017.
[3] Canadian Railway War Board was created in WW1 to coordinate rail activity.  Now it is a lobby group, the Railway Association of Canada.
[4] A measure of the price of moving major commodities by sea.