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Canada has enough food, but COVID-19 brings challenges

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Higher prices and less variety on store shelves is a possibility as the agriculture industry confronts a wide range of challenges created by COVID-19, the federal agriculture minister said Wednesday.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she’s confident the country had enough food and stopped short of suggesting Canadians start growing war-era “victory gardens” to supplement their own supplies.

But everything from a potential labour shortage on farms to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers at food processing plants will have an impact, she said.

“I think our system is strong enough and resilient enough that it will adapt, but these days it is particularly challenging,” Bibeau said during a video news conference Wednesday, where she fielded questions from her home in Sherbrooke, Que.

“I do not worry that we will not have enough food,” she added.

“But we might see some differences in the variety and, hopefully not, but maybe in the prices as well.”

The federal government has announced millions in new spending for farmers this week alone, including $20 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency so it can have enough inspectors on hand to carry out its work.

The funds are partially designed to guard against the potential for CFIA inspectors to be stricken with the virus and be unable to work, further slowing down an already struggling supply chain.

The other labour issue facing the industry is a farm worker shortage. Some 60,000 temporary foreign workers come to Canada annually to work on farms and in plants but border closures mean fewer are expected this year.

They are also required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, and this week, the federal government announced $1,500 per worker to help employers cover salary payments or revamp living quarters to ensure workers can abide by distancing protocols.

Checks on those measures will be carried out by local, provincial and federal authorities, Bibeau said.

The arrival of temporary foreign workers is being stymied by global travel restrictions, and what’s ordinarily an annual shortage of several thousand workers is likely to be made worse, Bibeau said.

The government is examining efforts to get unemployed or under-employed Canadians into jobs on farms, she said.

That’s despite the fact that the very reason the temporary foreign worker program exists is due to Canadians not wanting those jobs–and farmers don’t necessarily want to hire them either, as the work can require extensive training. Many workers return to the same area every year because they’ve developed a specific skill set.

“It’s a challenge, but we have to do even more to encourage them to join the industry,” Bibeau said of the workers the government hopes to recruit.

Another issue facing the sector is outbreaks in processing plants. An Olymel pork processing plant northeast of Montreal reopened this week after the spread of illness among its workers forced a two-week shutdown.

The Cargill Meat Solutions plant south of Calgary, which represents more than one-third of Canada’s beef-processing capacity, announced this week it was idling its second shift of workers.

The union representing those staff said there had been 38 cases of COVID-19 at the plant in High River, Alta.

Bibeau said she is reviewing a pitch by the cattle industry to help weather the crisis. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association wants a federally co-ordinated “set-aside” program that would enable producers to keep their animals longer.

The program would slow down the supply chain because there’s not enough processing capacity, the group has said.

The Conservatives called Wednesday for Bibeau to immediately implement that program and be far more transparent about what else the government is examining.

“Farmers, producers and processors work hard day and night to ensure that Canadians have the food they need while they stay home,” three Conservative MPs who work on agriculture issues–John Barlow, Richard Lehoux and Lianne Rood–wrote in a letter to Bibeau.

“These hard-working Canadians need to know that their jobs will be safe during this pandemic and that they can continue to produce world class products.”

Agriculture group wants Ottawa to prioritize aid to ensure food supply

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says Ottawa should make the industry a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic, second only to the health of Canadians, to safeguard the country’s food supply.

President Mary Robinson told a news conference Thursday that the industry is struggling with farmers being hit by higher costs due to the pandemic and a shortage of temporary foreign workers.

“We do not mean to create panic. At the same time it would be irresponsible not to sound the alarm about the realities Canadian farmers are facing,” said Robinson.

“Canadian farmers need immediate, meaningful help from our federal government to continue fulfilling that responsibility. Agriculture, the foundation of our overall food supply, is at this very moment in time at a tipping point.”

Robinson said the federal government needs to establish an emergency fund so producers can overcome mounting costs. She didn’t specify how much money should be put aside.

“Canadian farmers are feeling increasingly stressed. In fact, right now, some farmers are so worried about the mounting challenges they are strongly considering halting their farming operations altogether,” Robinson said.

“Another fear is if planting does go ahead will harvest and processing be possible without sufficient labour or will crops rot in the field as we are seeing now in other countries?”

She warned that consumers could see a decrease in the amount and variety of food in grocery stores, as well as higher prices, if action isn’t taken.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government does recognize the importance of the agriculture sector and has provided a substantial amount of assistance already. She said Ottawa will look at the request.

“As our food producers and supply chains continue to adjust, we welcome recommendations provided by the sector as we work together to respond to the exceptional situation we are in,” Bibeau said in a statement.

“Farmers and food businesses are doing a huge service to feed the nation and they can be confident that their government has their back.”

Bibeau also spoke Thursday with United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. She said she affirmed agriculture and food production as critical infrastructure and they spoke of the importance of uninterrupted food and agriculture trade between the two countries.

The CEO of Food Products of Canada is backing the demand for further assistance.

Michael Graydon said farmers represent the first line of Canada’s food supply and need to be reassured.

“Anything less will harm our rural communities, cities and all Canadians now and well into the future,” he said.

“It’s an unprecedented challenge. We’ve worked hard to keep up with record spikes in demand for foods, help employees stay healthy and upholding the most rigorous food safety standards.”