Opposition MPs critique government’s COVID-19 response for ag sector

Pandemic puts ag committee meeting online

Federal deputy agriculture minister Chris Forbes was one of the witnesses to appear via video conferencing at the Commons agriculture committee’s online meeting May 5. (Parl.gc.ca)

Ottawa — Opposition MPs used the first meeting of the Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to critique the federal Liberals’ $252 million aid package for farmers and food processors.

During the May 5 online meeting, Quebec MP Richard Lehoux, the Conservatives’ associate agriculture critic, charged the $100 million made available to help livestock producers deal with pandemic-related processing delays was not enough to cover producer costs, particularly if hog producers were forced to destroy animals.

Addressing the committee, Chris Forbes, deputy minister for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), cited the $77.5 million federal commitment to equip processors and others in the sector with the personal protective equipment required to keep operating as another way in which government was responding to the issue.

A launch for the purchasing program will happen “as quickly as possible,” he said.

The amount of money was “disappointing” to Bloc Quebecois ag critic Yves Perron, who contrasted Canada’s response to the aid package being offered to U.S. producers.

Perron joined several MPs on the committee in criticizing the government’s decision to largely work within existing business risk management (BRM) frameworks and programs, saying they don’t work for most producers and improvements are urgently needed.

NDP ag critic Alistair MacGregor, the lone New Democrat on the ag committee, asked how long the federal government expected the announced funding to last.

Forbes said he expected the $100 million dedicated to set-asides to be spent in the coming months, but added there was no specific timeline yet for the $50 million dedicated to buying surplus food.

The goal, he said, was simply to ensure the funding was out the door and in the hands of the industry as soon as possible.

MacGregor pointed out the $252 million being offered was less than 10 per cent of what was asked of Ottawa by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA).

Alberta MP Gerald Soroka, another Conservative member on the ag committee, took aim at the $125 million announced for AgriRecovery, a framework in which provinces and the federal government cost-share coverage of losses associated with natural disasters.

The federal government has committed to covering its 60 per cent share of the costs — and announced the program criteria have been adjusted to cover 90 per cent of farmers’ eligible expenses, up from 70 per cent — even if provinces chose not to pay for their portion.

But Soroka argued AgriRecovery is always funded for $125 million and criticized the federal government for presenting it as “new money” to the public.

Forbes made clear AAFC regularly budgets, and has the authority to spend, $125 million, but said that money was not being spent.

“We’re announcing effectively that we’ll make all of that available if needed, starting with the beef and pork ranchers and farmers, and then if needed in other areas,” he said.

The May 5 meeting was the first of a series of Commons committee sessions to take place via video conferencing.

While there were some challenges with translations and connections throughout, MPs expect to continue to meet online as official Ottawa remains largely shut down due to the pandemic.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.



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