The Liberal government unveiled a multimillion-dollar, multipart package this morning aimed at helping farmers and food processors safely navigate the coronavirus pandemic — aid that comes amid concerns both about food security in Canada and the health of vulnerable workers.
But the funding envelope, an “initial announcement” according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, falls far short of the $2.6 billion emergency fund requested by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Trudeau announced a new $77 million fund for food processors of varying size, including meat packers, to help businesses retrofit their factories and increase capacity to deal with the backlog of livestock that’s been building up in parts of the county.
The money can be used to buy personal protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols, and support other social distancing measures, said the prime minister during his daily briefing outside of Rideau Cottage on Tuesday.
The money can be used to make conditions safer for workers on the line, but an official in Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office stressed that occupational health and safety is a provincial issue.
The government is also expected to add an additional $125 million to the AgriRecovery fund, a federal-provincial-territorial program aimed at helping farmers during disasters.
“For many farmers, this crisis means that they have to keep animals for longer periods of time – and that can be expensive. So, with this funding, we’re giving extra help to beef and pork producers so they can adapt to the crisis,” said Trudeau.
“This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will.”
The cattle industry has been pushing for this type of funding to help cover the cost of extended stays in feedlots, similar to how a set-aside program worked during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease) outbreak.
The government also wants to expand the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to allow it to buy and store more surplus dairy products — like cheese and butter — to avoid the type of milk dumping already seen this spring.
$50M surplus purchase program
For other commodities, Trudeau is pledging at least $50 million purchase program for surplus foods, similar to what’s available to some farmers in the U.S. This kind of program could help the french-fried potato industry, which has seen plummeting sales as restaurants from coast to coast have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The government will buy large quantities of certain products at risk of going to waste — say, potatoes or poultry — and redistribute them to organizations addressing food insecurity,” said Trudeau.
“This will help ensure that our farmers are being compensated for their hard work and that our most vulnerable have access to fresh food during this crisis.”
The announcement comes as some farmers begin the spring planting season and amid concerns from others about potentially culling their animals because of the reduced capacity at some of the country’s largest meat processing plants, a sector that’s been particularly hard hit by illness.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been warning that a financial boost is urgently needed to protect against food shortages in Canada and called for a $2.6 billion emergency fund last Thursday.
“We understand that the entire country is under duress. Agriculture is a unique player in our economy. Not only does agriculture create value for our economy, act as stewards of our environment and employ over two million Canadians, agriculture also provides us the unique benefit of food — not only for Canada but for the world at large,” said federation President Mary Robinson said in a statement issued on April 30.
“Planting season is happening right now. Mother Nature waits for no one. Farmers need to have the financial confidence that they will not be facing bankruptcy due to impacts of COVID-19.”
When asked about the federation’s multi-billion request, Trudeau said today’s $252 million package is an initial announcement, and more will need to be done.
Alberta meat plant reopens amid controversy
The federation has been calling for the creation of an emergency preparedness fund specifically for farmers dealing with increased expenses and obstacles due to the pandemic. It also wants the federal government to ensure farmers and food processors have personal protective equipment for on the job.
Tuesday’s announcement comes one day after the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, Alta., reopened after closing more than two weeks ago after an outbreak swept through the plant.
More than 900 of Cargill’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and one worker has died, making it the site of the largest single COVID-19 outbreak in Canada
The union that represents the workers is asking a court to stop work at the plant and has also filed unfair labour practice complaints against Cargill and the province.