Feds spending $252 million to address food supply issues, safety at processing plants

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the federal government is providing $252 million in new federal assistance for Canadian farmers and others in the agri-food sector whose livelihoods have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to help redistribute food and better protect workers in processing plants.

Though, already, some industry stakeholders are saying this new funding falls “well short” of what’s needed. 

As part of this the government will be spending:

  • $77.5 million to help food processors purchase protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols like physical distancing and expand domestic processing capacity to increase the amount of food made in Canada;
  • $125 million to help cattle and hog producers who are raising more animals than can currently be processed because of COVID-19 and as a result are seeing their costs increase because they are keeping these animals longer; and 
  • $50 million on a food surplus purchasing program that will see the government buy large quantities of surplus products and redistribute them to areas where food insecurity is an issue, to avoid throwing out food and to allow the producers to still be compensated.

In addition to this the government says it intends to increase the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing limit by $200 million to cover costs related to having to store excess cheese and butter, though this initiative will need legislation to implement and talks are beginning with opposition parties on moving ahead with a new emergency aid bill to make that happen. 

Among the challenges for those working to feed Canadians are changing demands due to many restaurants being closed, having the staff to work the current planting season, and the closures of some processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks leading to reduced production and other supply issues.

The government says it is also working with provinces and territories to increase payments to producers who face revenue declines, up to 75 per cent from the current 50 per cent, as well as possibly expanding an insurance program to protect against lost production due to not having enough workers. 

“It is not a perfect situation by any stretch. But we're doing what we can to try and make sure that people are rewarded for their hard work, and that others aren't going hungry,” Trudeau said in making the announcement from Rideau Cottage. 

Thanking those who are working to ensure grocery shelves are stocked, the prime minister said that Canadians are spending more time in the kitchen, whether “trying to make sourdough” or cooking for an elderly neighbour.

“These days especially, cooking and baking is about more than nourishment. It’s also about relieving stress, finding a community, supporting each other, and creating memories. You help make that possible,” Trudeau said. “This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will.” 

Already, the federal government has provided $50 million to help cover the costs of bringing in temporary workers and housing them in isolation for 14 days before beginning to farm; $62.5 million for the seafood and fish processing sector; as well as other business assistance programs such as the $5 billion offered in loans through Farm Credit Canada.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau continues to say more would be done, and the government will work with the industry, stakeholders, and the premiers to find more long-term solutions.

“I care deeply about the wellbeing of our farmers and food production workers and understand how stressful this period is for them,” she said during the ministerial update on COVID-19 response measures. 

In a later briefing with reporters, Bibeau said that discussions are still underway on finalizing details such as which food processing plants will be eligible for the funding for protective gear, and emphasized that the owners and operators of these facilities also have responsibility to ensure their plants meet health and safety standards. 

AG GROUP SAYS FUNDING 'DISCOURAGING'

Last week, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture called on the federal government to provide the sector $2.6 billion through an emergency fund to maintain food security. That amount was based on estimates of the immediate impacts of the pandemic across the country, such as the shutdown of much of the food service sector and supply chain disruptions, the organization said in a statement.

Reacting to the announcement in an interview on CTV News Channel, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said that the package unveiled by Trudeau falls “well short” of what is needed, citing examples of certain agriculture industries facing having to cull their herds or losing entire crops because they don’t have the labour to harvest it.

“We had hoped certainly to see something much more significant,” said Robinson. “We have great concern about the ability of farmers to survive this – and I want to be clear that farmers are very proud people and don't typically ask for help, and it's discouraging to be given such a small amount in in this announcement today.”

Robinson compared the amount to being given a bucket of water to put out a burning house, and said she hopes that there will quickly be follow-up announcements.  

Conservative agriculture and agri-food critic John Barlow said Tuesday’s announcement is not the strong action needed, saying it “fails to meet the needs of farmers and producers who have been asking the government for help for months.”

Similarly, both Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and NDP agriculture critic Alistair MacGregor say the amount announced is not enough.

"While we welcome the support announced today, it is still not enough to offset the losses suffered by our farmers and ensure a strong food security system for Canadians. Sadly, the government is still letting down many producers who are still not eligible for current support programs,” MacGregor said in a statement. 

According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, a quarter of agricultural businesses have reported highly disrupted supply chains, and 40 per cent of the small- and medium-sized businesses in the sector have seen significant drops in demand. In the Chamber’s view, the supports unveiled so far “will lead to delays in the ability of agriculture firms to address the impacts of COVID-19.”  

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