NFU says COVID-19 funds for agriculture can help build more robust future food system

OPINION – On May 5, Prime Minister Trudeau announced initial emergency relief measures for the agriculture sector totaling $252 million. While full details are not yet available, the National Farmers Union (NFU) appreciates help for farmers affected by the disruption created by COVID-19. The pandemic shines a spotlight on vulnerabilities in our food system, providing the opportunity to use emergency supports to create the foundation for a more robust and resilient food system.

This funding recognizes the impact of large packing plant closures on beef, hog and other livestock farmers. With dramatic reductions in processing capacity, the market has collapsed. More animals must be kept on the farm, fed and cared for much longer than expected. Selling prices have dropped like a stone, leaving farmers with higher costs and severely reduced incomes.

The NFU supports worker health and safety and is also pleased to see aid that will help protect food processing workers and adapt processes to ensure workplace safety while renewing processing capacity focused our domestic market. Supporting and rebuilding smaller abattoirs and meat processing capacity in all provinces will make our food system more resilient. Currently, less than 5% of Canada’s meat is processed by small and medium sized enterprises; expanding them will create regional processing that would reduce dependence on the international industrial giants.

Emergency funding criteria must exclude Cargill and JBS, as both have recklessly endangered workers’ lives and members of the larger community by their failure to implement proper safety measures at the High River and Brooks operations. These corporations are two of the wealthiest and most powerful companies in the world. Their inadequate safety measures to date ae not due to a lack of money.

The NFU is pleased that emergency funds for beef, hog and other livestock farmers will be administered through the AgriRecovery Business Risk Management program without requiring enrollment in AgriStability. The NFU has emphasized to the Minister that changes to AgriStability in 2012 made the program unworkable for most family farmers, especially mixed farmers, and has urged that it not be the primary delivery vehicle for COVID 19 emergency payments.

The total amount announced today to support livestock producers, $125 million, will not be adequate to compensate farmers for the losses experienced. The NFU strongly urges that a floor price be enforced to ensure farmers receive at least the cost of production when selling livestock to federally inspected packers, feedlots and backgrounders. This floor price is needed to prevent meat packing companies from reaping windfall profits from this crisis at the expense of farmers and consumers.

The risk to our food system from undue consolidation of livestock processing has been a long-standing NFU concern. In addition to today’s emergency funds, the NFU urges the federal government to help provinces develop appropriate meat inspection regulations that will position small and medium sized abattoirs for long-term success. Creating a framework for the long-term success of regionalized food systems would be a positive legacy of Canada’s pandemic response, making Canada’s livestock sector more resilient and Canada’s food supply more secure.

Both the $200 million in increased credit for the Canadian Dairy Commission to increase its storage capacity and the $50 million for a surplus food purchase program are welcomed, to help those in need and to avoid wasting the food that farmers have worked hard to produce.

We note that our dairy and poultry farmers have been managing the pandemic’s disruptions using the Supply Management system’s tools to share the burdens and develop solutions together. Increasing storage capacity will spare dairy farmers the financial and emotional stress that goes with dumping milk.

We look forward to future announcements that will support farmers who are owner-operators, and those who produce ornamentals, fruit and vegetables, and mushrooms, all also struggling due to COVID 19, as well as Canadian grain farmers facing pandemic-related price discounts and market disruptions in the international trade arena.

The NFU has a history of promoting a more robust food system that works for farmers, workers and consumers. In 2017 we presented our vision and policy recommendations to the Food Policy for Canada consultation process. Now, the pandemic provides a strong incentive to align emergency responses with a longer-term vision for stability, resilience and food security.