COVID-weary Canadians have something else to keep them up at night — the spectre of a domestic food shortage.
“(W)ithout immediate assistance from the federal government, the Canadian agriculture sector cannot ensure our domestic food supply will remain secure for the immediate and long-term benefit of all Canadians (because of COVID-19),” the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) warned in a news release April 16.
“As farmers, we have carefully considered this message today,” CFA president Mary Robinson said during a video news conference. “We do not want to create panic. At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to sound the alarm about the realities Canadian farmers are facing.”
The CFA says securing Canada’s domestic food supply should be the government’s biggest priority behind health care.
Some farmers are thinking about ceasing operations because of labour shortages and market uncertainty, Robinson said.
“(E)ven if planting does proceed, harvesting and processing may not be possible without sufficient labour,” the release says. “We face the possibility that crops will rot in the fields… ”
Due to meat-processing plant closures, some farmers must feed their livestock longer than they would normally.
CFA is asking the federal government to create an emergency fund for needy farmers.
“We are asking Canadians — we are asking you — to contact your local MP and tell them how much you value our food supply,” Robinson said appealing directly to Canadians. “Tell your elected representatives that Canadian farmers need support and backing now. We need to know government, as it has done for other industries, is there for our farmers so we can continue to do what we do best — grow food to feed all Canadians.
“We aren’t ones to seek handouts. We look to governments only as a last resort.”
CFA doesn’t know how much money is needed for the emergency fund.
To help farmers find more workers CFA wants the government to change the rules so Canadians receiving employment insurance can keep much of the benefit and still work for farmers.
Why it matters: Canada has ample food at a reasonable price. To hear Canada’s largest farm federation warn that could change is jarring. Is the warning motivated by prudence or posturing?
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau assured reporters during a video news conference Canadians will continue to have adequate food despite the pandemic crippling the economy.
“I think our system is strong enough and resilient enough that it will adapt, but these days it is particularly challenging,” Bibeau told reporters.
“I do not worry that we will not have enough food. But we might see some differences in the variety and, hopefully not, but maybe in the prices as well.”
During earlier news conferences she predicted any disruptions in the food chain would likely be due to processors or distributors, not because farmers didn’t produce.
“Actually the food sector might be one of those that will be the least impacted because we will keep eating during the crisis so I don’t see any concrete impact except the complication in terms of getting people to work (in the food chain) and being asked by certain suppliers to be paid quicker,” Bibeau said during a news conference March 23.
The minister has also said farmers can expect changes to federal-provincial business risk management programs designed to assist farmers when reduced production or prices hurt their income.
When asked April 16 when those changes will be made, Bibeau replied: “We are looking at different options right now with some kind of assistance or improved business risk management program. All the options are on the table. I know that our farmers need more support and we are working very hard on that right now. A variety of recommendations are coming from different sectors right now so we are sorting this out.”
In an email statement later she highlighted “many significant contributions” the government had already made to the sector, including $5 billion in additional funds to Farm Credit Canada, resulting in $2 billion in deferred loans already, for 2,000 producers and food processors. She also noted the $50 million provided to help farmers bring in temporary foreign workers in time for the planting season and a further $20 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “… so they have the capacity to meet the demands for their critical inspection services.”
She also noted that many of the “government-wide” responses such as deferrals on GST, custom duties and income taxes will also help “many farm and food businesses…”
Some store shelves, including meat counters, are sometimes bare these days, but it’s because of problems with processors and distributors, not farmers, agricultural economist Al Mussell, research lead with Agri-Food Economic Systems, said in an interview April 16.
But ultimately production could be affected, he added.
The impact from COVID-19 will vary among commodities, but all Canadian farmers will be hurt by the pandemic, Mussell predicted.
“We know across the sector with different commodity segments there are going to be major losses associated with this,” he said.
“The BRM suite that is there now is not equipped to handle something like this with its suddenness and magnitude and also the uncertainty going forward.
“You have AgriRecovery which is meant to deal with act of God type of things but I think the magnitude of this is far beyond whatever was contemplated when AgriRecovery was designed. So the idea of having some sort of assistance for the sector in consideration of the magnitude and depth of what is happening here I think has a lot of merit… ”
Currently many Canadian horticultural farmers are struggling because COVID-19 delayed the arrival of the foreign workers they rely on for spring planting, Mussell said.
An excess supply of hogs in the United States, and reduced hog slaughtering capacity as a growing number of plant workers contract COVID-19, has seen hog prices fall.
“There are some hog producers who could lose everything because of this,” he said. “If you end up with pigs that are worth nothing, and it costs you to dispose of them… a catastrophe like that, AgriStability is not going to keep you anywhere near level. This plays slightly different across commodities, but I can’t imagine any commodity comes away free and clear.”
Meanwhile, domestic demand for meat is likely to fall because millions of people are out of work and looking at a different diet to save money, Mussell said.
“The demand is softening up on us.”
The news isn’t all bad though. Because Canada is a net exporter of agricultural products it has an opportunity to develop new markets as some other exporters cut back so as to ensure adequate food for domestic markets, Mussell wrote in a paper with two other economists.
CFA’s warning might appear “opportunistic,” but consumers need to know “this could happen,” Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell said in an interview April 14.
Meanwhile, market uncertainty, shifting markets, including the closing of restaurants, and problems at meat-packing plants, are distorting market signals, he said.
“I went to Boissevain Saturday and they (Co-op) were limiting you to one package of hamburger,” Campbell said. “It seems odd when we have a whole bunch of beef here to process and now stores are limiting you. My daughter said you can only get two jugs of milk and we’re dumping milk.”
Campbell sold two feeder heifers for $1,000 apiece recently, but according to Agriculture and Resource Development break-even is $1,400.
“I’m losing $400 and I fed them all winter,” he said. “What does that tell you as a producer about market signals and the vulnerability in what we’re doing, and yet I can only buy one package of hamburger at the store. That’s the reality agriculture is trying to present to consumers. We don’t want to be alarmist. We don’t want to panic, but I can’t afford to keep doing this.
“If I don’t grow it, you can’t eat it.”