With everything currently going on in the world, no one is short of questions — especially in the agricultural sector.
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Marie-Claude Bibeau joined RealAgriculture’s Shaun Haney to answer some of the questions you as listeners and readers have asked over the course of the last few days.
Check out the full interview that aired on RealAg Radio, as well as a summary of the Q&A between Minister Bibeau and Shaun Haney, below:
Q: Regarding the $5 billion added to Farm Credit Canada (FCC)’s loan portfolio, a lot of farmers are asking the question, why not just go with an exemption on the carbon tax as opposed to adding more debt?
A: “The idea behind that is to give the farmers more flexibility. To give them more time to breathe. Doing that and giving more loan capacity to FCC allows them to deal on an individual basis with farmers, and to see if they need to postpone their mortgage, or find any more flexible and appropriate ways to deal with this situation. The idea really is to manage the cash flow. It’s not to add more debt.”
Q: There’s a lot of discussion on the transport of agricultural goods, and making sure that the entire ag value chain will be classified as essential during COVID-19. Will the entire food-value chain be considered an essential service?
A: “Yes. This is a top priority for us, and I’m sure you have noticed that when we decided to close the international borders we made sure that merchandise, and food, and all the services related to the agri-food supply chain was protected and would be able to travel freely, with no barriers. We are doing the same with all the provinces. Food security is a top priority, and we know that we have to work together, and know that our markets are very integrated with the Americans.”
Q: Do you consider the COVID-19 situation a food crisis?
A: “No, and I don’t want to get there. My main worry right now is around human resources. Paying a lot of attention and seeing how we can support every kind of business in the sector. In farming, we have a challenge with temporary foreign workers for example. In processing plants, there’s another kind of challenge as their employees coming to work are being reassured that they have a safe environment to work in. We are losing some senior volunteers in food banks. Even in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), we are being very careful to make sure that we will always have enough inspectors to keep the chain going normally. The idea really is to make sure that the food supply chain continues to work smoothly, and that everyone can continue their normal work to ensure food security.”
Q: I think across the country people are very interested in this temporary foreign worker issue and ensuring there is a supply, and that the program goes forward in 2020. When they heard your announcement late Friday night, there was a big sigh of relief. But this week it has been more of a sobering reality of: What is the government doing to ensure these workers can actually get here, with so many international flights being cancelled? How are we going to make this happen?
A: “We are working in partnership with Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). So first we allowed farming workers who have a permit to come to Canada. It’s one thing to say you are allowed to come, but now… how do you get here? Secondly, we are finalizing right now with our public of services and FARMS Canada and other partners finalizing the isolation protocol. These workers will have to go through the 14-day isolation period. And then really, it’s FARMS Canada that’s in charge to organize a logistic around either putting these workers on commercial planes where it’s still possible or chartering planes, which is actually not a special thing. They have done that for years — chartering planes to go get the foreign workers. In some countries we are not allowed to fly anymore, so we have to negotiate, and obviously it’s the government who is doing that. Negotiating with these countries to get the rights to fly, and to get their workers back in Canada.”
Q: Spring is quickly approaching, whether you are in a greenhouse or you are out in the field. Do you know when there is going to be further clarity on the TFW program?
A: “I know the isolation count protocol is being finalized. So this is something that you will get the details about very soon. And then as I said earlier, it’s more FARMS Canada who is responsible for the logistics around them coming here.”
Q: With COVID-19, is there going to be any disruption, or will it be business as usual at federal AAFC research stations across the country. Is the research crop, or the livestock research that is going on, going to continue through this crisis?
A: “It’s a case-by-case situation. Obviously, we are following the same rules as most of the businesses. If it’s possible to work remotely, we do that. Obviously, there are animals to take care of, and they will be taken care of. It’s a possibility that some research will be postponed. It’s a case-by-case basis depending on the condition of the work.”
Q: We have farm groups across the country. A lot of these groups are pushing for BRM reform, and I know that the last time everyone got together with all of the provinces and yourself, there was a discussion about moving this down, and talking about it in July again. Will there be any sort of a decision made on BRM reform at the next meeting in July? Or is this an issue that we will be talking about for a while?
A: “I’m still looking at the best way to support farmers under these special circumstances. And BRM is one very concrete option. I can’t go much further in our discussion on that, but be reassured that it is still moving, and is still being discussed with my provincial counterparts.”
Q: We’re seeing another potential large payout to American growers in terms of direct payments. Is an ad hoc direct payment program to producers in certain sectors on the table at all at this point?
A: “Everything is on the table. The first measures that we announced last week were really to support the biggest number of people affected by the crisis. So all these people that have lost their jobs, and the businesses — including agribusiness — who need some breadth, in terms of payment. These were the first steps. This was the very first step that we wanted to do to support as many people as we could in the easiest and fastest way. And then we will get into each and every sector to see where those most affected with the situation were. For most of the agricultural sector — at least we know people will keep eating.”
Q: You alluded to the staffing. With the CFIA, there are some issues with overtime in some of the packing plants. I think about some of the phytosanitary work that happens on the crop side. How is this impacting CFIA’s ability to do its job?
A: “We know it is impacting because we are losing some of our inspectors because of health problems, and also because food processing has to adapt to the new situation by making sure that their employees are not too close to each other, and its reduced the amount of production, so they might need inspectors for more hours during the day for example. So this is why right now we are reorganizing the sources within CFIA, and prioritizing the inspections that are directly related to food safety. We are also taking some of our professionals within the organization and training them to inspect a different type of installation than they are used to, but still, they have the scientists and the technical background to do it. We are reorganizing to ensure we don’t get a slowdown in food production.”