Welcome to this meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
With that, I will call the meeting to order.
I'll go through some of the usual stuff. I know that most of you know it, but I think it's still important to go through it.
Welcome to meeting number 16 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. We are meeting today to discuss the subject matter of the supplementary estimates (A). Note that we will not vote on the estimates at the end of the meeting, as they will be considered by the committee of the whole on June 17.
I would like to outline a few rules to follow.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either floor, English or French.
When you intervene, please make sure that your language channel is set to the language that you intend to speak, not the floor. This is very important. It will reduce the number of times we need to stop because the interpretation is inaudible for our participants. It will maximize the time we spend exchanging with each other.
Witnesses, I think we've all gone through the checks to make sure you understand this important information. If not, wave your hand, but I believe we're all good on that.
Also, before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.
Please make sure that your microphone is on mute when you aren't speaking.
We are now ready to get going. I'd like to welcome our witnesses today, especially the minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau.
Appearing before the committee today is the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, who is the minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
You have seven minutes for your opening statement. The floor is yours.
Good afternoon, members of the committee. I'm pleased to be here today.
I want to thank the committee once again for your hard work and your ongoing commitment to the agriculture sector.
I appreciate the opportunity to join you today as we look at the supplementary estimates for 2020-21 and to highlight the support that our government has put in place to respond so our farmers and processors have the support they need during this challenging time. These supplementary measures bring Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's 2020-21 authorities to date to approximately $2.8 billion.
COVID-19 caused a sudden shock to our food system. I care deeply for our producers and food business owners and workers, who are facing the struggles caused by this pandemic. I think particularly about our young producers and the stress this unprecedented situation has caused for them and their families. We recognize the challenges of the backlog and volatile prices faced by livestock producers, the labour challenges faced by our fruit and vegetable growers, and the loss of markets owing to restaurant closures.
There have been positive signals in the sector as well. The demand for and export of grains, oilseeds and pulses has increased. We are having record months for the movement of grain by rail. Our slaughter capacity is normalizing and helping to clear the backlog.
Since the pandemic began, our government continues to roll out supports as fast as possible. For our farm families and processors, this support represents over $1.25 billion.
First, our government created the Canada emergency business account, which could deliver over $2.6 billion in interest-free loans to 67,000 eligible farmers across the country. By providing access to $10,000 in loan forgiveness on a $40,000 interest-free loan, we are providing more than $670 million in direct support to Canadian farm families.
To help farmers manage their cash flow, we immediately deferred payments on $173 million through the advance payments program, and we increased the lending capacity of Farm Credit Canada by $5 billion. More than $4 billion of that has already helped farmers.
I know access to workers continues to be a challenge in the country, but we continue to have a significant number of temporary foreign workers arrive every week. We estimate that, so far, 80% of workers have arrived as compared with the same period last year, but there is still much to do.
We are pleased that employers are making use of our $50-million program to support them with the costs they assumed to ensure foreign workers were safe during the mandatory quarantine period. I know we are all deeply saddened to hear about the recent passing of two temporary foreign workers in Ontario, as well as the many others who have fallen sick. Our top priority is to keep workers safe, and we will continue to work together with employers and local public health authorities.
Included in the supplementary estimates, the $77.5-million emergency processing fund will also help food processors adjust their operations to keep their workers safe and boost Canadian food production by modernizing their facilities or reopening plants, for instance.
We increased the funding to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency by $20 million to ensure continued inspection services to keep our food safe for Canadians and our export markets.
To get more young Canadians working in the sector, we announced $9.2 million under the youth employment and skills strategy program, which will fund up to 700 new positions for youth in the agriculture industry.
We also made improvements to the business risk management programs available to producers. Yes, there is more to be done to improve these programs, but one of my messages to farmers continues to be that these are important tools, and please make use of them. Usually these programs provide $1.6 billion a year in direct support to our producers. This year it could be over $2.2 billion, including potentially doubling the paying out for AgriStability.
Most provinces have now signed up to increase the interim AgriStability payment to 75%. In Alberta, for example, the province estimates that this could result in $20 per head for pork producers.
We have extended the enrolment period for AgriStability to July 3, and we encourage producers to apply.
Canadian agricultural producers have almost $2.3 billion in their AgriInvest accounts, self-managed producer-government savings accounts designed to help producers manage small income declines and make investments to manage risks and improve market income. The average producer has close to $25,000. Horticulture producers have an average of about $25,000. For grain and oilseed producers, it's $33,000, and for potato producers, it's $93,000.
We also took leadership in announcing our commitment to the AgriRecovery initiative, committing the entire $125 million and changing the program so that producers will benefit from the federal assistance whether the provinces choose to participate or not. It's encouraging to see that some provinces, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, made announcements of their contributions to AgriRecovery. Indeed, our partnerships with the provinces and territories have become even stronger during the pandemic. We've met weekly and are partnering on meat inspections, business risk management programs and much more.
Lastly, we have really taken the challenges of Canadians' food security to heart. Since the pandemic hit, we have given $100 million to support our national food bank and food networks. The supplementary estimates include $75 million to help food aid organizations serve vulnerable Canadians during the crisis. I'll give you an example. Thanks to $170,000 in federal funding, the Unemployed Help Centre in Windsor, Ontario, has been giving out emergency food hampers to families in need. Yesterday, we launched a second call for proposals under the local food infrastructure fund to help local food organizations invest in larger projects up to $250,000.
This second application intake will build on the success of our first round of projects, which have helped communities across Canada. Lastly, the estimates include $50 million to help local food organizations access local surplus food to serve vulnerable Canadians. We have made good progress, but there's much more to be done.
Mr. Chair, I know that our agriculture and agri-food sector will be a key driver of leading the economic recovery of our nation and will continue supporting the prosperity of our rural communities and our national economy.
Thank you, Mrs. Bessette.
Indeed, in ridings right next to mine, in the Eastern Townships, the community organizations you mentioned work hard to meet a demand that is unfortunately very high. The local food infrastructure fund helps food banks, youth centres and community gardens, among others.
Last year marked the first call for proposals. Under that phase, up to $25,000 in funding was available to projects for the purchase of equipment. The idea behind the second call for proposals, which was just launched yesterday, is to support community-driven projects with up to $250 million in funding over three years.
The goal of the program is to move beyond merely purchasing equipment; we want to encourage people to form partnerships, to connect with local farmers, grocers, restaurateurs—in other words, integral members of the food system—to set up infrastructure that will help reduce the demand. Our long-term vision is to strengthen local food systems.
The fund will help cover costs related to infrastructure, alterations, equipment and some minor expenditures that are not recurring. The program does not cover ongoing costs.
I gather, then, that it's not really new money. It was previously earmarked.
I'd like to talk about the programs and improvements.
No doubt, you heard about the Canadian Federation for Independent Business's survey. It revealed that 29% of farmers consider the support programs to be adequate, 48% are worried about their debt and 40% have concerns about their business's future.
When you first announced support measures, Prime Minister Trudeau referred to them as a first step, saying that if more assistance were needed, the government would do more. We believe the government needs to do more as of right now.
Can you tell us whether you'll be announcing any program improvements soon? Have you set a date?
As far as the necessary changes go, it was clear that the $77.5 million for the processing sector wasn't enough. The money went quickly.
When it comes to the support for the pork and beef sectors, stakeholders told the committee that the $50 million the government had allocated was practically invalid already and that they needed a whole lot more.
With all due respect, Minister, when you tell us that you're working hard, that's great and we believe you, but the sector has been in need of help for quite some time now. Everyone is telling us the same thing. Every committee member will agree with me when I say that the programs aren't working, so action is urgently needed.
You probably know that we'll be resuming our work and making recommendations. We are offering to work with you, because things really have to move quickly here.
I would now like to give the floor to my fellow member Mrs. Desbiens, who will use the rest of my six minutes to ask a question.
Thank you very much, Chair.
Minister, first of all, thank you for acknowledging in your opening remarks the temporary foreign workers who unfortunately died as a result of COVID-19. I can only imagine what's going on for their families far away from here and the pain that they're suffering.
I also want to link this to the federal program that's available. We in this committee all know and producers know that there's $1,500 available to producers to make accommodations for their workers to help self-isolate in this quarantine period. So far, we have had two workers who have died, and there are numerous outbreaks happening in southern Ontario at several farms.
Minister, as it relates to the program that offers $1,500 to producers, is your department analyzing whether this is in fact enough money? Are producers in fact getting enough support to properly isolate workers? How are you taking feedback from these outbreaks, and will you be modifying the program appropriately? In other words, are other measures needed?