A food security expert is warning the negative effects of the COVID-19 on Canada’s agriculture sector could outlast the coronavirus pandemic. Sylvain Charlebois, scientific director of the Agri-Food Analytics Labs at Dalhousie University, said Ottawa must do more to help.
“I don’t think that the food security of Canadians is compromised right now, but we could actually see many, many farms disappear as a result of COVID-19,” he told Global News.
Charlebois said the coronavirus pandemic is damaging the ability of farmers to stay in business.
He said Canada loses between five and seven per cent of its farms every year and that the pandemic could cause that to double.
He points to the meat processing plants across the country that have been forced to close or slow down because staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or entered quarantine as one factor hurting the sector.
Most of Canadian meat is processed at only a few plants, so the loss of even one has a dramatic effect on the industry.
The diminished capacity to process meat means livestock must stay on farms longer.
Charlebois warned the combined effect, of spending more money while losing income, is affecting farmers and could cause them to euthanize animals to prevent further financial loss.
He also says the situation is similar for produce farmers because some vegetables or crops are mostly consumed in restaurants, which are currently closed or almost closed.
“Seventy five per cent of French fries are consumed in restaurants across Canada,” he said.
“And not a whole lot of people are ordering French fries to be delivered at home.”
He says reduced demand for meat and produce is causing lower prices, further hurting farmers’ businesses.
“We’re in this for a while and people don’t necessarily realize that staying home cooking — which is not a bad thing — is creating major disruptions within the agrifood sector in Canada.”
He said the federal government must do more to help the sector.
“Most of the policies that we’ve seen so far would suggest that Ottawa really misunderstands agriculture in general,” he said.
He says producers need emergency funding to offset lost income and to pay for transportation and housing for workers so they can properly socially distance and still work.
To date, the federal government deemed foreign agriculture workers essential, increased Farm Credit Canada’s lending capacity by $5 billion and extended the deadline for the cost-sharing program AgriStability.
“Our government is working around the clock to respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on Canadians, on farmers and agri-food businesses,” said agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau in a statement.
“We understand that agriculture groups have specific needs and asks right now and we are actively exploring additional ways to support them.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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