Evidence of meeting #147 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was work.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Chris Forbes  Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food
Jaspinder Komal  Vice-President, Science Branch, Chief Veterinary Officer and World Organisation for Animal Health Delegate for Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Christine Walker  Assistant Deputy Minister, Corporate Management Branch, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food
Clerk of the Committee  Ms. Ariane Gagné-Frégeau

Noon

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

Of course.

Noon

NDP

Alistair MacGregor NDP Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, BC

Okay.

Noon

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

As well, we're investing a lot in innovation and trying to find ways to be more resilient, obviously, and having a very strong climate plan to fight climate change overall.

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. MacGregor.

Madam Minister, thank you for coming to see us this morning to share with us your expertise and your concerns on agricultural matters. You also talked about the main estimates, 2019-2020, for your department. Thank you once more.

If I understand correctly, Deputy Minister Forbes and the assistant deputy minister will stay with us for the second hour.

Noon

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Noon

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

We are going to suspend the meeting for a few minutes, so that the other witnesses can take their places.

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Let us resume the meeting.

Welcome to our second hour.

With us for the second hour is Mr. Chris Forbes, deputy minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Thanks for staying with us for the second hour.

Also, we have Christine Walker, assistant deputy minister. Thanks for joining us.

There's no opening statement, so we'll go right to the questions.

Mr. Dreeshen, do you want to get this going for six minutes?

June 6th, 2019 / 12:05 p.m.

Conservative

Earl Dreeshen Conservative Red Deer—Mountain View, AB

Thank you very much.

It's good to have the department here so we can ask a few other questions and perhaps look through a few different things that we didn't have a chance to speak to the minister about.

A Statistics Canada report just came out a couple of days ago. We often hear glowing things about how the Barton report is going to make it so that agri-food exports reach $75 billion, and how great that is going to be for agriculture. There is always a lot of money in farming, but it doesn't necessarily get to the farmer. I think that's really the critical part because, according to the report by Statistics Canada, the realized net farm income of ag producers fell 45% in 2018, which followed a 2.8% decline in 2017. That's been the largest percentage decrease since 2006.

It takes into account inventory, pricing and volume and so on, but one of the key things is the increases in costs for farmers. There are rising feed costs, and interest and labour costs and new regulations that we see being added to small business. We also see changes as far as taxation is concerned. Of course, we see the one that I tend to talk about a lot, which is the carbon tax.

The costs associated with this continually add up. Prices go up for the farmer; income goes down for the farmer. The comment was made earlier about climate change. Producers are the first ones to recognize climate change, but they're also the first to speak out against a carbon tax as a solution for that. There is a need for real solutions. The knee-jerk things that we do.... Of course, that was done when we thought the U.S. was going to be engaged in some sort of North American carbon pricing, so the way in which we were trading around the world would have something like that included in it. We also saw countries that were our competitors, like Australia, saying that they'll give it a try. It didn't take long for them to make that change.

Here we have farmers who recognize that yes, there may be some great ideas as to how they can expand, but they aren't going to be the ones to benefit from this unless we can find a way to look at the cost side of this as well.

Perhaps, Mr. Forbes, you could speak to some of the things your department sees as concerns as far as the cost side for our agricultural producers is concerned.

12:10 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

Why don't I take a stab at that? Thank you for the question.

I think you accurately portrayed the net income numbers for last year. It was driven by a range of cost increases. Some of those—interest rates, obviously, and the cost of carrying debt—rose a little bit last year. We do have programming between the Farm Credit and ourselves to financially support people looking to borrow.

On some of the other costs, I would put forward a couple of points. I would start with our research agenda writ large, which is actually about how to find, if you will, more productive ways such as improved productivity of our crops—making them more drought tolerant and adapting to some of the changing climatic conditions, so we can maintain the productivity and in many cases reduce some of the input costs associated with running a farm.

If I think about other aspects, on our programming side we have innovation programming that would work for the extension of innovative, on-farm practices, whether it is the practices themselves or the equipment and tools that are available. These are some of the things that would be out there that would tackle some of the cost increases and try to improve sustainability.

The one other thing I'll mention is labour, which is obviously big—both in terms of availability and cost. You raised that, Mr. Dreeshen. We work closely with our provincial colleagues and with the sector to look at better understanding labour market conditions and what we can do to improve access to labour, predictions about labour and how provincial and federal programming can work together to support the sector.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

Earl Dreeshen Conservative Red Deer—Mountain View, AB

I will just say, in the time I have remaining, that the farmers were the first ones to adapt to the technology. Governments sit back and say, “This is our idea of how farmers will be able to do better.” Well, quite frankly, they're years ahead of anything government ever does. They're looking at the tools they need to have as well, the GMO products and all these other types of things. They're looking at regulations and the competitive edges they could have. They're looking at gene editing in Europe versus what we have in North America. If people put those two things together and started to look at it from square one, they'd be horrified at how those genes are changed in Europe.

Unfortunately, we're behind the eight ball. We have these different groups out there denigrating everything we do. We need a government that will stand up to that. I'm wondering if that awareness and desire to stand up and fight against some of these nonsensical types of things that are coming from afar is something that the department is set to do.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. Dreeshen.

Did you want to give a quick reply to that?

12:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

I'll just say something quickly.

I think from public servants' standpoint, we are in international fora arguing for science-based solutions and science-based approaches to regulations. I understand the point about regulation and trying to make it efficient. We want to maintain the strength of our regulatory system and the reputational advantage it gives us, but at the same time, we have to make it as efficient as possible.

This has been raised to us through numerous fora. It's not news to you and it's not news to me. We're working on that, for sure.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. Forbes.

Mr. Peschisolido, you have six minutes.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Peschisolido Liberal Steveston—Richmond East, BC

Mr. Chair, thank you.

Chris, it's great to see you again, and Madam Walker, welcome.

As you know, Chris, the agriculture committee has been studying the African swine flu outbreak. To use a very vernacular phrase, this could be very, very bad. In China, depending on whom you speak to, a third to half of their livestock hogs have been culled or will be culled. It's expanding into Vietnam. There are concerns about it in Hong Kong. There are isolated cases in other parts.

We've been studying the issue here at committee, and I believe the department has also been looking at it and dealing with international stakeholders. One, are we prepared for this? What are we doing to make sure we don't have it here in Canada? And two, if it does come here—God forbid—what will we do in response?

12:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

I can give you a high-level answer. I also have a colleague here from the CFIA, if you'd like me to bring him forward.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Peschisolido Liberal Steveston—Richmond East, BC

Absolutely.

12:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

Jaspinder Komal is the chief veterinary officer at CFIA. He is really at the front line of this work.

If you're okay with being put on the spot, Jaspinder, you can talk a little bit about what you're doing.

12:15 p.m.

Dr. Jaspinder Komal Vice-President, Science Branch, Chief Veterinary Officer and World Organisation for Animal Health Delegate for Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

No problem.

I'm sorry, but could you give me the question again?

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Peschisolido Liberal Steveston—Richmond East, BC

Sure. Are we prepared, and how are we prepared? What are we doing in preparation?

12:15 p.m.

Vice-President, Science Branch, Chief Veterinary Officer and World Organisation for Animal Health Delegate for Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Dr. Jaspinder Komal

As you know, we've been working at it for some time now. At the forum we had in Ottawa, we wanted to raise global awareness in addition to being prepared in Canada and the U.S. to try to prevent this infection from coming here. We also wanted to make sure the region of the Americas was free from it. Following from that, we had a meeting last week of G7 country CVOs and also of the World Organisation for Animal Health in Paris. At the G7 meeting, countries recognized Canada's leadership on this, and following that at the OIE as well. All the conclusions and the next steps on this were actually incorporated into the resolutions at the OIE. Countries are now on high alert. Countries with infections and countries that don't have it are all thinking of it as a global issue that we need to tackle together.

When it comes to preparing in Canada, we have worked a lot on prevention, on strengthening our borders and strengthening the biosecurity at the farm. We are now getting into making sure we are prepared in case the infection comes into Canada. Do we have agreements with other countries for business continuity? In case it happens, do we have enough resources? Are labs prepared? Are our inspectors prepared? We have our provinces with us to work with us. Industry is there to work with us. We're working on all those things.

12:15 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

I think the last point that Dr. Komal made was that there is a lot of work with provincial partners, because they have an important role in this, and of course industry as well, both in terms of their actions and communication to their members. It is a collaborative approach, as you described, with international partners as well.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Peschisolido Liberal Steveston—Richmond East, BC

Why don't we assume that we will make sure that it doesn't come here?

But if it does come here, it will probably be quite devastating. Then we're going to have to regroup somehow, and the way to regroup is to make sure that the hog farmers are compensated quickly. I'm not that concerned about the other stakeholders in the industry because I think they're big enough to take care of themselves, but for the farmers, will there be some flexibility in the compensation plan so they can get the money quickly?

12:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

The first point I'd make is that if it were to come here, I think the points that Jaspinder made around biosecurity containment—how we set up zones to make sure that we constrain it—are the first things we can do, should it come. This is not to downplay the importance of compensation, but just to say that's what we'd have to do: Limit—if it were to show up—any spread, and that's where a lot of the focus from the CFIA standpoint would be.

On compensation, I can't prejudge any subsequent decision other than to say that, obviously, to the extent that it has a significant impact on the sector, I think governments, federally and provincially.... The minister talked about some of the programming that we have in place already. We would stand ready to work with the sector to help them recover and get over this issue both in terms of containment, and doing our best to keep international markets open, or reopen them, whatever it is, and also on a domestic front.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Joe Peschisolido Liberal Steveston—Richmond East, BC

I'll change gears slightly. Someone earlier on—it could have been Mr. Dreeshen or Mr. MacGregor—talked about food security. After the last election, the agriculture minister's mandate letter, and I'm assuming it is in Madame Bibeau's mandate letter too, from the Prime Minister indicated that food security was one of his key focuses.

Can you tell the committee where we are on that and what specific programs and approaches we will be implementing on a food security platform?

12:20 p.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Chris Forbes

This was part of the food policy announcement in the budget for $134 million over five years. Food security was one aspect of that. The minister, I think, covered a couple of the programs, one for a local infrastructure fund that would improve access and try to increase access to safe food generally across the country. There's also a northern and remote communities project fund to specifically focus on some of those areas that the evidence shows have some of the higher rates—