Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and committee members.
It is a great pleasure to represent Maple Leaf Foods and to provide our point of view on the impact of COVID-19 and on the future.
You've heard from many witnesses, and I could of course give you a great deal of information about how the crisis has impacted our business and the sector broadly, and about our direct experience in the crisis management response of our industry and government partners collectively. I'll be happy to answer any questions on those issues, and I've shared a longer document that gives a bit of context for what I wanted to say, but I really wanted to focus more on the future, on what needs to happen for our sector to recover and on what are some of the processes and understandings we should have to make the most use of that, because, as we all know—I think it was Winston Churchill who once said it—you should never waste a crisis.
In the months to come, we owe it to Canadians to take a careful forensic look at our food system and reflect critically on what needs to change operationally and strategically to make sure that we are better prepared in the future. I have some immediate thoughts.
First, there needs to be at least one inclusive evidence-based post-mortem or lessons learned exercise on the agri sector crisis response as a subset of the national inquiry that will presumably be led by Public Safety Canada. The federal government must be willing to put the review in the hands of one or more independent bodies, such as the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute or the Arrell Food Institute, both of which in fact have been thinking about this and have already announced a joint process to undertake such an inquiry. Leaders from government, agriculture, the CFIA, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency and so on, along with their provincial counterparts, should be directed to participate fully and transparently in such a process.
Second, it needs to be asked why Canada did not have a cross-agency business continuity plan for the agri-food sector similar to the U.S. food and agriculture sector-specific plan, which was last updated in 2015, and also, if we build one, what will be done to actually exercise one.
Coupled with this should be a serious examination of integrating federal, provincial and industry interests into a more cohesive crisis governance model that's capable of making informed, timely decisions. We could look at models in other countries. We need to ask whether plans and structures to deal with agri sector specific crisis events, such as African swine fever, are up to the task, and whether in that case a group like animal health Canada could be launched in 2020.
Third, there needs to be careful consideration of what COVID-19 has fundamentally taught us about the resilience of the Canadian agri-food system and what we need to change, both to better manage the forward risks and to seize the commercial opportunities in a time when other Canadian industries may be permanently damaged. The areas of specific focus, in our view, need to be the following.
The first is the economic health of subsectors of Canadian agri-food going forward, at least until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. This is important, since some farms and businesses will be bankrupt, food service sales may remain impaired for a very long time, workplaces will operate with higher absenteeism, operating costs will be higher with some production lines running more slowly and food prices will have to rise, etc. Some useful literature has already been published by the academic community on this.
The second area is the future state of global agri-food policy and trade and the implications for Canada’s agri-food trade and investment strategy. We are a trade-dependent sector, so this matters a lot. The OECD has already begun to examine this and, given our export dependence, Canada should participate fully in that work. Canada must align with like-minded countries to beat back protectionism and highlight Canada’s export capacity as a key contributor to sustainable food production and global food security. To do this, we also need to fix our relations with China.
The third issue, while taking full account of the difficult fiscal circumstances facing all Canadian governments, is the design and scope of programming under the federal-provincial Canadian agricultural partnership, which expires in 2023.
In our view, there needs to be a top-to-bottom review to ensure that it is appropriately mitigating business risks for the agri-food supply chains, not just the farm sector, while making the right investments in research, sustainability, animal and plant health, export market development and so on. Commitments on regulatory modernization and solutions to the labour crisis should be brought within the CAP framework.
Next, we need to look at the appropriate design, funding and governance of the food policy for Canada that was announced last year. The need for a joined up whole-of-government food policy has been made very evident throughout the pandemic, but many priorities will likely have to be rethought, not least because of the new fiscal circumstances. Health Canada’s regulatory agenda for the food sector also needs to be brought into the food policy framework and, in our view, be less activist-driven.
Finally, there's the issue of food insecurity in Canada and what needs to be done to prevent it from getting worse. This is something that Maple Leaf Foods cares deeply about, and our Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security could help in this area of investigation.
In conclusion, the Canadian agri-food sector has a huge contribution to make to Canada’s post-COVID-19 recovery, perhaps more than any other sector of the economy. The pandemic has demonstrated that for many social, environmental and economic reasons, the sector matters more than ever, and Canadians see that. Under the right set of conditions, the sector has the ability to attract investment and create employment at a faster pace. It has immediate employment opportunities for thousands of unemployed Canadians. It is also experiencing an IT-enabled technology revolution that plays to another major area of strength for Canada. In the aftermath of COVID-19, there's an opportunity to pivot business models and government thinking towards the priorities of resilience, risk prevention, sustainability and innovation-driven growth. Where the crisis demonstrated that certain legacy structures and decision-making processes—whether within government or between government and the agri-food sector stakeholders—got in the way of better, quicker decisions—