The policy environment and responses to current food system challenges

Transport in Canada is governed by multiple jurisdictions and arrangements, from international agreements to which Canada is signatory to the municipal level.  The policy and regulatory environment is largely framed by issues of economic competitiveness and efficiency, reasonable and affordable access to transport, and security and safety.  The system inefficiencies discussed above are not really being addressed because of this commitment to market function.  Similar, issues of food quality and animal welfare are not receiving significant attention from the state (although industry and non-governmental groups are pursuing solutions, sometimes with grants from government). Of the key issues raised in the previous section, only environmentally responsible transport has been added to the mandate.

International relations are also guiding policy forces for certain parts of some modes, particularly for international air and water transport, and US – Canada road traffic.  Passenger transport receives much greater attention than freight. Within the freight category, food freight, though a significant component of most transport modes, is a relatively minor determinant of policy and regulation compared to “high value” and hazardous goods.  With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Prairie grain and oilseeds moved by rail), food freight is not typically a driver of wider angle transport considerations.

The federal government derives its powers from Section 92(10)(a) and (b) of the BNA Act which grants jurisdiction over modes of interprovincial and international transportation. It actively participates in two international processes, one governing air (the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO), the other sea (the International Marine Organization and MARPOL, the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships).  The central legislative framework is provided by the Canada Transportation Act, primarily administered by Transport Canada (TC).  The TC vision  is “A transportation system in Canada that is recognized worldwide as safe and secure, efficient and environmentally responsible”[1].  However, TC also has primary or partial responsibility for a long list of other acts, including the Railway Safety Act, the Canada Shipping Act, the Motor Vehicle Transport Act, and the Aeronautics Act[2].  Many of these Acts, or sections of them, give application to provisions of the CTA. As well, the para-governmental Canadian Transportation Agency is “responsible for air transportation regulations and rules; personnel training for the Assistance of Persons with Disabilities Regulations; railways costing regulations; railway interswitching; railway third-party liability insurance coverage regulations; and railway traffic liability regulations” (Studnicki-Gizbert, 2014).

The provinces generally have jurisdiction over transportation processes and infrastructure within their boundaries that do not have extra-provincial dimensions, including provincial highways, regional railroads, public transit, and vehicle registration and licensing.  Under the Motor Vehicle Transport Act, the federal government has delegated much of its highway authority to provincial entities, so the highway transport industry is effectively under provincial jurisdiction (Studnicki-Gizbert, 2014). Navigable waters are primarily federal responsibility but provincial participation is often required since the water beds are typically provincial responsibility.  Municipalities also control certain roads and are responsible for some public transit, taxi and courier licensing. A number of other domains, including land use planning and zoning, noise abatement, idling and public health bylaws also impact on transport.

In this section I focus on those policy and regulatory dimensions of the food / transport nexus that do have a significant impact on food system function.  Later, I return to some of the themes addressed here and propose changes to the regulatory environment.

If attempting to reduce GHG emissions / tonne-km, shipping should favour ship, then rail, then large truck, then small truck and air (Edwards-Jones et al., 2008).  There are, of course, other considerations, but in general policy should be favouring such a hierarchy where feasible.  Additionally, policy interventions should be designed to push for reductions in emissions of all kinds across all modes.  In this section, I discuss policy responses related to these themes.  In general, there has been some policy progress on emission reductions, but limited policy interventions to encourage mode shifting.  In fact, some recent policy changes have encouraged more trucking.

In its sustainable development plan, TC claims that “under the legislative authority of the Railway Safety Act, the Canada Shipping Act, 2001and the Aeronautics Act, Transport Canada contributes to reducing the air emissions from transportation by creating and implementing regulatory regimes” (Transport Canada, 2013).  However, the degree to which domestic regulations are being shifted depends, it seems on the mode.   This is significant because more stringent regulation of some modes may cause shifts to other modes less regulated, and this may be inconsistent with the hierarchy.


For example, it appears that much of Canada’s aeronautics policy for efficiency design and renewable fuels revolves around collaborating on voluntary programmes with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  In step with ICAO efforts, the federal government and the Canadian aviation industry released Canada’s Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aviation, to improve fuel efficiency from a 2005 baseline by an average annual rate of at least two per cent a year until 2020 and reduce GHG emissions from both domestic and international aviation (Transport Canada, 2012a). However, improved fuel efficiency may not reduce absolute emissions if growth in air travel outstrips efficiency improvements. The ICAO has been criticized for slowing down progress on design and efficiency, with too much emphasis on biofuels, an approach that may not ultimately reduce emissions when land use change is factored in as part of lifecycle assessment (Dings, 2010). The federal approach, thus, seems consistent with this limited strategy.  Bill C-7 (2007) might have strengthened regulations on aircraft emissions but it died on the order paper[3]. Unfortunately the US has announced a target of 100% sustainable aviation fuel by 2050 and this will put enormous pressure on land use and competition with food crops, particularly oilseeds (Arnason, 2021; see also Goal 2 Demand-supply Coordination and Goal 5 Sustainable bioproducts).


Regarding shipping, Canada and the U.S. are signatories of MARPOL, the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships.  TC is working with the IMO to reduce shipping emissions by changing regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. The Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations of the Act provide room for pollution reduction and vessel design improvements although some of the current language is linked to MARPOL requirements[4]. Also, with MARPOL and the US, Canada is implementing an IMO Emissions Control Area[5] for the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway.  Initiated by the US, the new regulations associated with the ECA required the reduction of sulphur content in fuel to 1% by 2012 and 0.1% by 2015.  Traditionally, ships use bunker fuel that is higher in sulfur and results in higher emissions, so an ECA requires that older ships be retrofitted for lower emission fuel or be replaced. This extension of the ECA eastern seaboard zone into the GLSLS requires Seaway vessels to comply with emission standards that formerly applied only to ocean-going vessels. Canada, however, is taking more of a fleet average approach, rather than a ship-by-ship one, which may limit the effectiveness of the regulation compared to other jurisdictions covered by ECAs (Higgins and Ferguson, 2011).  The regulations also provide for circumstances where it is difficult to obtain compliant fuel[6].  Globally, the UN International Marine Organization implemented a 0.5% standard in 2018.

In Canada, the federal government owns all the fixed assets of the seaway (and management and tolls are the purview of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation), but in the US, there is more state jurisdiction over the seaway which creates a long list of governments to satisfy. “It has been estimated that a marine carrier in cross border trade will need to comply with 30 sets of US and Canadian regulations administered by 10 different departments on federal and provincial levels” (Ferguson and Lavery, 2012).  Seaway environmental improvements have to be coordinated between the US and Canada because of this significant number of jurisdictions and pertinent environmental issues – ballast water policy, energy efficiency, emissions reduction, reduced fuel emissions, retrofits of existing ships[7], etc.  Ballast water is another example, where stringent Canadian regulations were introduced to the Seaway in 2008, but some US states have threatened to impose requirements 100 times more stringent than those of the IMO (Ferguson and Lavery, 2012).

Some existing regulations appear to be in the way of environmental improvements in the Seaway. “The protectionist Canadian Coasting Trade Act (CTA) and the U.S. Jones Act both have a very restrictive effect on the movement of domestic marine shipments on the GLSLS and elsewhere” (Ferguson and Lavery, 2012). These acts require that domestic movements occur in a domestically flagged ship with a domestic crew.  The US rule also requires ships be US built with majority US ownership.  Canada, however, recently removed its 25% duty on foreign build ships, which may be contributing to Seaway fleet renewal with more environmentally friendly ships built elsewhere. NAFTA provisions have not really relaxed cabotage rules in shipping, but have in trucking which has had the effect of increasing truck freight[8].  Another problem is the US Harbour Maintenance Fee which appears to encourage trucking over short sea shipping between Canada and US, especially for higher value items, because it imposes many fees and tolls for cost recovery (Ferguson and Lavery, 2012).

In Canada, ports have received more attention regarding environmental improvements than ships. TC launched the Shore Power Technology for Ports (SPTP) program to reduce port emissions. This $27.2-million five-year program provides cost-shared funding for the installation of technology that allows docked ships to power off the local electrical grid instead of their own auxiliary diesel engines (Transport Canada, 2012a).


Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Canada has adopted new regulations for Heavy-duty Vehicle and Engine Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations (which establish mandatory standards for new on-road heavy-duty vehicles and engines that are aligned with U.S. standards for vehicles of model years 2014 and beyond sold in Canada) and amended the Passenger Automobile and Light Truck Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations (which align with U.S. standards for model years 2017 to 2025 sold in Canada). Authority also comes in part from the Motor Vehicle Transportation Act, section 16.1(i), permitting the Governor in Council to make regulations ” (i) restricting or otherwise governing the release of pollutants into the environment from the operation of vehicles operated by extra-provincial motor carrier undertakings.”[9] The federal government anticipates significant GHG emission reductions associated with these changes (Transport Canada, 2012a).


As with other modes, efforts continue to harmonize rail traffic and regulation with the US.  In some ways, this process started with NAFTA, which permitted partnering or purchase of rail lines in each country, helping with north-south connections (Ferguson and Lavery, 2012).  In itself, this has not likely taken much freight out of truck, but perhaps has helped to create the conditions for a more concerted effort.

On the emissions, side the federal government purports to use the Railway Safety Act to align GHG emission regulations with the USEPA, through the Canada-U.S. Voluntary Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Locomotives. A plan is supposed to come forward in 2017.  However, the plan will not be mandatory and it will only set intensity rather than absolute emission reduction targets.  But US emission rules for locomotives in 2015 have already had an impact on the system.  One of the two main suppliers of locomotives was off the market until 2016 to retool its manufacturing of the engines to meet new requirements.  There has been a North America wide locomotive shortage as a result (Atkins, 2014).

The wider angle problem is that branch line (and rural elevator) closures are contributing to higher emissions because cargo is being pushed more into trucking.  One estimate for Saskatchewan suggests a 10 fold increase in carbon dioxide emissions for transport of grain and oilseeds between 1985 and 2016. During that period, grain delivery points were reduced from 1,031 elevators to 162 (Cross, 2019).

Encouraging multi-modal?

At a provincial and municipal level, there are some efforts to encourage multi-modal freight.  The province of Ontario Growth Plan for GGH (2006) proposed land use policies to support multi-modal goods movement planning.  The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) is developing Freight Supportive Land Use Guidelines which could lead to reduced freight distances (MTO, 2012).  Some regions have now taken these directives and made them part of regional plans, but on-the-ground changes are still limited.  Metrolinx (2011) conducted a freight study in 2011 and concluded that rail operates significantly under capacity and much freight is just moving through the GTA. Data on intermodal is limited, although there are some foundational truck-rail intermodal facilities in parts of the region, eg. Vaughn.  These facilities are not necessarily well linked though to air and marine. Ports in Toronto and Hamilton appear to be somewhat underutilized especially for agricultural goods. At this point, Ontario’s interventions to support intermodal freight look feeble compared to the more aggressive instruments in other jurisdictions, such as the US Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 and the Transportation Equity Act of 1998.


[3] Bill C-7: An Act to amend the Aeronautics Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts
[7] See for example,;;
[8] Note that some rule changes just between Mexico and Canada did have the effect of increasing shipping at the expense of trucking between these countries.