Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a $252-million aid package for Canada’s agriculture and food industries in the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says $77 million of that will go to measures to keep workers in food processing safe with protective equipment and by supporting physical distancing in workplaces.
Meat-packing plants, in particular, have seen large outbreaks of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The package includes money for beef and pork producers holding animals they can’t sell, a credit program for the dairy industry and a $50-million fund to buy food that spoils and send it to groups such as food banks.
The announcement comes just as some farmers are making decisions about whether to plant crops and others are considering whether they need to cull their cattle, pigs, and poultry because of the reduced capacity of meat processing plants, which have proven particularly vulnerable to the spread of the deadly coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The federal government has taken some small steps to cushion the blow to farmers but Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has been promising for several weeks that more aid is coming.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been warning that financial assistance is urgently needed to protect against food shortages in Canada.
Two weeks ago, the federation urged the government to make food security a top priority, second only to protecting the health of Canadians.
“It was a large step to take, and while CFA does not mean to cause panic about food insecurity, we felt like there was no other option as our sector is at a tipping point where the consequences of a lack of meaningful support from our federal government will impact our domestic food supply,” federation president Mary Robinson said in a statement issued on April 20.
“As farmers make crop and animal production plans for 2020, we need to feel confident that we will not go broke due to COVID impacts on our farms and the food supply chain, that instead government has our backs.”
Robinson complained that the government has committed $500 million to other hard-hit sectors of the economy, including arts and sports, while just $50 million has been so far devoted to helping farmers cover the cost of isolating temporary foreign workers who enter the country to work on farms.
“It is beyond frustrating to see our industry, that is both foundational and integral to the long term success of our country, seems to be largely ignored.”
Bibeau has pointed out that some farmers are eligible for previously announced emergency financial assistance and existing farm income stabilization programs.
But the federation has been calling for the creation of an emergency preparedness fund specifically for farmers dealing with increased expenses and obstacles due to the pandemic.
It also wants changes to existing risk management programs so they are more responsive to farmers’ needs. And it wants the federal government to ensure farmers and food processors have the personal protective equipment they need to protect their own health.
As well, the federation has called for federal incentives to encourage unemployed Canadians to work on farms.
Today’s announcement comes one day after the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, Alta., re-opened after closing on April 20 as COVID-19 swept through the plant.
More than 900 of Cargill’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. One worker has died.
The union that represents the workers is asking a court to stop work at the plant and has also filed unfair labour practice complaints against Cargill and the province of Alberta.