Politics

$252M emergency aid package coming for farmers, food processors — but critics warn it's not enough

The Liberal government unveiled a multimillion-dollar aid package this morning aimed at helping farmers and food processors safely navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic. But the funding envelope falls far short of the $2.6 billion dollar emergency fund requested by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Canadian Federation of Agriculture has asked for $2.6B in aid

The government is also expected to add $125 million to the AgriRecovery fund, a federal-provincial-territorial program aimed at helping farmers during disasters. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

The Liberal government unveiled a multimillion-dollar aid package this morning aimed at helping farmers and food processors safely navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic — an announcement that comes in response to concerns about food security in Canada and the health of vulnerable food sector workers.

But the funding envelope — an "initial amount," 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 various sizes, including meat packers, to help these businesses retrofit their factories and increase their capacity to deal with a backlog of livestock building up in parts of the county.

Watch | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks about federal role in keeping meat plant workers safe

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from CBC's Tom Parry on why it's up to the federal government to ensure international meat packing companies keep their workers safe. 1:20

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 today.

While money can be used to make conditions safer for workers on the line an official in Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau's office also stressed that occupational health and safety is a provincial issue.

The government is also adding $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.

The cattle industry has been pushing for this type of funding to help cover the cost of extended stays in feedlots — something similar to the "set-aside" program in place during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") outbreak.

$50M surplus purchase program

The government also announced $50 million for a purchase program for surplus food, similar to what's available for some farmers in the U.S. Trudeau said the goal is to redistribute the surplus to food banks.

Such a program could help the french-fry potato industry, which has seen plummeting sales because restaurants have been closed from coast-to-coast 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."

Watch | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked about size of agrifood aid package

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Tuesday 1:37

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 more instances of milk dumping, a move welcomed by the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

"Never have we seen such fluctuation in demand for milk from one week to another, and despite the best efforts to manage production to align with consumer needs, bottlenecks resulted in milk having to be disposed at the farm, something no dairy farmer wants to see," said Pierre Lampron, president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada. 

The announcements come as some farmers begin the spring planting season — and as some are warning that they could start culling their animals to cope with reduced capacity at some of the country's largest meat processing plants, a sector that's been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been warning that a financial boost is urgently needed to protect against food shortages in Canada. It called for a $2.6 billion emergency fund last Thursday.

Supply management attempts to ensure farmers produce the right amount of milk to feed Canadians' desire for dairy products. The outbreak of COVID-19, however, resulted in unforeseen fluctuations to the market. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Federation president Mary Robinson told CTV News she welcomes the announcement but it falls "well short" of what is needed.

"We had hoped to see something much more significant," she said. "It's discouraging to be given such a small amount."

"If your house was burning down and I offered you a bucket of water to put it out, you'd probably have an issue."

When asked about the federation's multi-billion request, Trudeau said more will need to be done.

"We know that there is more to do and we will keep working with them to determine exactly how we can best help," he said.

"This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will."

Conservative MP John Barlow, the party's agriculture and agri-food critic, said the money allocated won't meet the needs of farmers and producers who have been raising the alarm for weeks now.

"Canada's food supply chains depend on our farmers and producers. But once again, the Trudeau Liberals have made it clear that they do not consider our agriculture sector to be a priority," he said in a statement.

"When food security should be a priority, the Liberals are sprinkling water on a burning farm house."

The NDP's critic echoed that argument.

"Sadly, the government is still letting down many producers who are still not eligible for current support programs," said  Alistair MacGregor in a statement.

"New Democrats will continue to ask the government to make sure their national food policy connects food producers to local communities so that no one in Canada has to worry about where their next meal is coming from."

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 the personal protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely.

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, said Tuesday's announcement doesn't go far enough to protect food inspectors.

"Generally speaking, a handout to processors is not going to solve the issue of protecting workers' safety if they cannot access adequate personal protective gear," he said in a statement.

"It might result in separation of workstations on the production line, but it will do little to address cramped quarters elsewhere in the hallways, lunchrooms and washrooms of the plants."

Watch | Those who feel unsafe won't be forced back to work, can get CERB: Freeland

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says that workers are "not obliged to work unsafe conditions" and will still qualify for CERB after being questioned by NDP MP Heather McPherson during a virtual session of question period. 3:13

Trudeau's announcement comes one day after the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, Alta., reopened. It closed 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 the plant 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

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told that a virtual House of Commons session on Tuesday that workers are not obliged to go to work if they feel unsafe — and will still qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit if they opt to stay home.

"It is absolutely the case that no Canadian should feel they have to work in an environment that is unsafe," said Freeland, after being questioned by NDP MP Heather McPherson.

"The government, of course, should not penalize workers for doing the right thing and declining to go to work in unsafe conditions."

With files from the Canadian Press

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