Canada’s food industry leaders say $252M aid falls short of need amid COVID-19

Click to play video: 'Alberta ranchers say new pandemic aid from Ottawa is ‘like taking a bucket to a forest fire’'
Alberta ranchers say new pandemic aid from Ottawa is ‘like taking a bucket to a forest fire’
WATCH: The prime minister has announced a new federal program to help Canadian agriculture get through the COVID-19 crisis, but Alberta ranchers say it’s not nearly enough. Food producers across the country had asked for $2.6 billion dollars, but Ottawa’s giving them only a tenth of that. Gil Tucker reports – May 5, 2020

Canada’s injection of $252 million into farm and food processing sectors was met with mixed reaction from industry leaders Tuesday, as the struggle to maintain production and supply during COVID-19 continues.

But it falls short of the $2.6 billion in emergency funding the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), one of Canada’s biggest farm groups, asked from the government just last week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left open the possibility that more support could be added as the pandemic drags on. He said the aid was an “initial investment” and “if we need to add more, we will.”

Still, it came as a “disappointment” to the CFA.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau pledges $252M for agriculture industry'
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau pledges $252M for agriculture industry
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“The government themselves asked us to quantify our ask, and this falls short of what we identified as financial damages we’re already facing,” said Chris van den Heuvel, second vice-president at the CFA.

“We asked all our commodity groups, ‘What is the hurt? How have you been impacted?’ And that’s how we arrived at the $2.6 billion figure.”

Trudeau’s announcement includes $77 million to keep workers safe in processing facilities and $125 million to support cattle and pork producers with animal overstock.

The government will also spend $50 million to buy up surplus food before it goes bad and redistribute it to food banks. The dairy-processing industry will get its own funds to buy up more milk and milk products.

But it’s what the aid program leaves out that van den Heuvel says misses the mark.

“We appreciate the support for beef and pork, but there’s far more out there that need the immediate support as well,” he said.

“Our industry is already one of razor-thin margins.”

Click to play video: 'How COVID-19 might affect food supply'
How COVID-19 might affect food supply

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said COVID-19 sent a “shockwave” through the agri-food sector, but acknowledged that existing supports in places for farmers, such as the business risk management (BRM) program, “needs to be improved.”

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The BPM programs are due to be reformed in July, which Bibeau reiterated during a news conference Tuesday. She noted the government already funnels $1.6 billion a year into it and that industries should still apply for it if they haven’t already.

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The current program suite was created to help certain farmers manager risks beyond their control — like trade disputes and rail disruptions — but eligibility requirements continue to leave some food sectors out, said van den Heuvel.

“We’ve been telling the government for a long time these existing programs don’t work, and that’s why they’ve seen an erosion in enrollment. Yet they continue to come back and say we have to use these programs first,” he said.

“But if they don’t qualify, how do we justify that to our members? There are a number of commodities that are facing an absolute urgent crisis at this time.”

He pointed to specific produce, like mushrooms, as well as the seafood industry.

The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, which represents Canada’s seafood farmers, called the economic disruption to their industry “extreme” in a recent letter to Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan, provided to Global News.

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Seafood farmers are currently not able to access the risk management supports available to other crop and livestock farmers.

Bibeau nodded to potato, poultry and mushroom producers as those that could benefit from the new $50 million buying program to serve food banks.

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Central Alberta farmers face delayed spring season amid COVID-19 outbreak

Van den Heuvel isn’t sure that goes far enough to meet the unique needs of these sectors and others.

“It’ll certainly help, but $50 million is woefully short of what’s probably going to be required when you look at the size and depths of the Canadian agri-food industry,” he said.

“From a national food security perspective, the entire sector is critical. We need to have clearer signals that they’re going to support all sectors, not just a few of them.”

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Meat industry pressure points

The pandemic has caused particular hardship for Canadian meat producers.

Meat processing plants have proven to be particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. Several Canadian plants have suspended or slowed due to outbreaks, or to readjust operations to new public health protocols.

In Calgary, the Cargill meat processing plant reopened Monday after closing for two weeks due to an outbreak of COVID-19 sweeping through the plant. More than 900 of its 2,000 workers have tested positive for the virus, including one death.

Because of this, farms and processing plants are raising more animals than the system can process, leaving farmers caring for animals for longer periods of time — far above the normal capacity.

Click to play video: 'Employees return to work at Cargill meat-packing plant'
Employees return to work at Cargill meat-packing plant

Part of the funding is intended to help alleviate this problem, Trudeau said.

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The Canadian Meat Council (CMC), which represents registered meat packers and processors, said the effort is a good first step, but more help will likely need to be addressed.

“Every industry can likely say, ‘We’re on fire, no matter what you give us is going to be sufficient,'” said Chris White, president of the CMC.

“Is it enough? No, it’s not enough. But it’s a starting point.”

White said the funding to retrofit production facilities to abide by new physical distancing measures will be important to the meat sector as the program begins to roll out.

On top of bolstered safety measures, some facilities have installed protective barriers in bathrooms and lockers to keep even reduced operations going. Cleaning protocols have also been ramped up.

“It’s critical that there is at least some immediate money on the table,” he said. “If there’s more needed, there will be other conversations had.”

— with files from the Canadian Press

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