Alberta meat producers say federal assistance falls short
CALGARY -- Meat producers say the federal government's announcement that it's pumping in $252 million to help Canada's agri-food sector make it through the COVID-19 crisis will have about as much impact as handing a glass of water to someone whose house is burning.
That was the initial reaction Tuesday to the announcement by the prime minister to help those in the agri-food sector whose ability to earn a living has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.
As part of this the government will be spending:
- $77.5 million to help food processors buy PPE for workers, adapt to health protocols like physical distancing and expand domestic processing capacity;
- $125 million to subsidize meat producers who are raising more animals than can currently be processed because of COVID-19;
- $50 million on a food surplus purchasing program that will see the government buy surplus products and redistribute them to areas where food insecurity is an issue.
Shifting demand, staff shortages
COVID-19 has resulted in restaurant closures, staffing shortages at processing plants when workers fall ill and even temporary plant closures, which have backed up the entire industry like a car crash on a busy freeway.
The government says it is also working with provinces and territories to increase payments to producers who face revenue declines, up to 75 per cent from the current 50 per cent, as well as possibly expanding an insurance program to protect against lost production due to not having enough workers.
“It is not a perfect situation by any stretch. But we're doing what we can to try and make sure that people are rewarded for their hard work, and that others aren't going hungry,” Trudeau said Tuesday morning.
Half the funding will go to hog and cattle ranches, with a large chunk protecting porcessing plant workers, but meat producers say the funding is insufficient to meet the challenges of a looming crisis.
That's because physical distancing guidelines have produced a slowdown in processing, creating a huge backlog at processing plants that are crippling meat producers economically.
"We're producing the food and the consumers are out there wanting it and there's just a bottleneck that has to be fixed," said Canadian Cattlemen's Association Vice-President Rob Lowe.
Rick Berman, speaking on behalf of Canadian Pork Producers, added: "The whole COVID-19 has pushed producers into a cash-flow crisis."
The bottlenecks are leading dairy farmers to dump thousands of litres of milk, and pork producers to cull pigs.
Part of the funding provided by the federal government will include provisions to buy food so that it won't be dumped, Trudeau said.
"The government will buy food that might go to waste, like potatoes and chickens, and make sure it goes to people who need it."
Shawna Ogston, from the Calgary Food Bank, said, "knowing that we will be able to have the healthy food in the hampers for Calgarians will be amazing.
The $252 million fell well short of the $2.6 billion requested by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA).
"(It's) much shy of what we need to ensure that we have a robust food system," said CFA president Mary Robinson.
With backlogs growing, producers have more more animals than can be processed during the pandemic, which means more mouths to feed, and less income to invest.
"Things could get really, really bad, really fast," said Lowe.
"A lot of producers won't be able to last," added Bergman.
The only other federal funding that has been announced for the agri-food sector to this point in the pandemic is $50 million to help cover the costs of brining in temporary workers and housing them in isolation for 14 days before beginning to farm.
With files from Rachel Aiello and Alesia Fieldberg