Evidence of meeting #16 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was money.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Marc-Olivier Girard
Chris Forbes  Deputy Minister, Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food
Colleen Barnes  Vice-President, Policy and Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

June 10th, 2020 / 5 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

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.

5 p.m.

Compton—Stanstead Québec

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau LiberalMinister of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

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.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Minister.

We will now move into questions, beginning with Mr. Barlow.

Mr. Barlow, you have six minutes. You may go ahead.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thanks to the minister for the reannouncement of other programs earlier this week.

I want to ask you about a comment that you made during your press conference that we've certainly had a lot of feedback on. It's your comment on the average cost of the carbon tax, that it costs farmers between $200 and $800 per year.

I put a call out to some of the stakeholder groups across the country yesterday, and I received dozens of comments and bills from producers. I have some ranging here from a couple of thousand dollars a month to one that's close to $10,000 a month. CFIB has said that the carbon tax is costing farmers, on average, $14,000.

Where did you get this data that says that the carbon tax is costing farmers between $200 and $800 dollars?

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

First, let me remind everyone that our pollution-pricing policy is designed to grow a clean economy, which is something that we really care about. What we have done at the beginning is to make sure that what is costing farmers the most is exempted. Emissions from livestock and crop production are not priced. Farm fuels and fuels from cardlock facilities are exempt, and there's a partial rebate for propane and natural gas used in commercial greenhouses.

Also, the department has prepared estimates reflecting the federal backstop, using a price of $50 per tonne. This shows an average increase of 0.2% to producers' net operating costs and a decrease of 1% to producers' net operating incomes due to carbon pollution pricing.

These are the levels, I would say, of data we have. I will just remind you that the Department of the Environment will proceed, has committed to proceed, in 2020 to a revision of—

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

I mean no offence, Minister. I appreciate that. You've tried to answer the question. I don't need the history lesson.

I know you've been trying to keep in touch with agricultural stakeholder groups through this pandemic, but how many of them you spoken with have supported the carbon tax and the increase on April 1? Have any, yes or no?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

I can't even count the number of producers I've talked to and their representatives, and the carbon tax is something that is important for the future of our country and the new generation as well.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

How many stakeholders, how many producers, have you spoken with who have told you that they support the carbon tax and the increase in the carbon tax?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

I can't give you a clear answer.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

I think that's because the answer is none. I think you know that. If you felt differently, I think you'd be able to give us an answer. I just want the fact that you aren't able to answer where you got this data from, which is completely out of touch with the reality on the ground.... As I said, I've had dozens of agriculture producers giving me their bills, and just for the ones that I did today, the carbon tax is 10.5% of their revenue and not 0.5%. I would hope that you're able to back up this data and that when we ask for it, it's not a secret but that you would feel comfortable sharing it with us.

Minister, I want to change issues now. We've heard that funding for economic development in agriculture has now been handed over to Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Is that true, yes or no?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

I'm not sure I understand what you're talking about. I doubt it would be true because I should be aware.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

Okay.

In the estimates, there's a $20 million internal transfer from operating expenditures for grants and contributions to support COVID-related measures to help food processors. It's been transferred from one department to another to deal with COVID. What was that $20 million initially budgeted for?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

We have announced $77.5 million to support the producers facing the COVID situation, and the details of the programs will be announced in the coming days. It's almost ready. The idea behind it is to support the food processors putting in place physical measures to protect their workers within their plants, and also measures to improve the processing capacity.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

Minister, you keep saying that these programs are new money, but clearly, in just this one portion of these programs, this $20 million was transferred from one area of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to another to cover COVID costs. What was that $20 million initially budgeted to cover?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

You're talking about the $20 million that you see as a supplement, the available budget that will not be disbursed according to our first plan. It will be moved to the Canadian agricultural strategic priorities program, CASPP. It's not specifically dedicated to a program yet.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Barlow Conservative Foothills, AB

So it's not new money; it's money that's being transferred from one program to the next. That's basically what it is.

I have one last question, Minister. In the local food infrastructure fund, you talked about $5 million over five years. At the announcement of this fund, it was said to be $100 million, but only $75 million has been allocated in these estimates. It's split up into three areas. Where is the other $25 million?

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

We have $75 million in new money, and $25 million was money that was last available at the end of the fiscal year, within the AAFC budget.

5:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Madam Minister, and Mr. Barlow.

We'll now go to Madame Bessette for six minutes.

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Lyne Bessette Liberal Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Minister, I'd like to start by personally thanking you for the wonderful announcement you made yesterday regarding the local food infrastructure fund.

Under the first call for proposals for the fund, you've already helped a large number of local organizations across the country and strengthened local food systems, including in my riding, Brome—Missisquoi. We're actually making an announcement soon.

I've seen the need for such projects, not only to ensure food security, but also to strengthen the capacity of community organizations, which many vulnerable people rely on. The idea is to reduce food waste and distribute food to a vulnerable population in a remote region while promoting a community-based approach. The fund is helping to do that, so I thank you.

Would you mind explaining to the committee what you announced yesterday?

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

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.

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Lyne Bessette Liberal Brome—Missisquoi, QC

I see. Thank you very much.

Thank you for launching the second call for proposals. It will go a long way towards helping communities in need, especially during the pandemic.

Now, I'd like you to clarify something, if you would. In the supplementary estimates, you've allocated $75 million to the local food infrastructure fund. Is that in addition to what was already announced, and if so, how will that money be used?

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

As you will recall, we announced a $100-million investment in food banks. In the estimates, you will see an amount for $75 million and another for $25 million, which more or less comes from a surplus from the previous fiscal year further to certain program or project delays, for instance.

When you have a departmental budget of up to $2.8 billion, for example, you always have a bit of money left at the end of the fiscal year. That $25 million came from the bottom of the barrel, if you will, and the $75 million is new money that we're spending, for a total investment of $100 million for food banks.

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Lyne Bessette Liberal Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Excellent. Thank you very much.

The committee recently heard from witnesses in the potato and poultry sectors. They talked about how important the new surplus food purchase program was. Companies in my riding of Brome—Missisquoi have surplus food, especially poultry products, and they are delighted to hear that such a program exists.

Can you explain to the committee why the program is so important to those businesses?

5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Marie-Claude Bibeau Liberal Compton—Stanstead, QC

The Government of Canada will invest $50 million in the food surplus purchase program. The purpose of the program is to help farmers financially, prevent food waste and support the most vulnerable members of society.

The program details and requirements will be announced in the next few days, but suffice it to say, numerous conversations have already taken place between my department and the various associations most affected by food surpluses. The idea isn't simply to purchase food. Farmers and processors with food surpluses will have to submit projects, and it will be necessary to specify where those surpluses will go. Determining which regions or organizations, which food bank associations and which northern regions will have the capacity to receive the surplus products will also be important.

5:25 p.m.

Liberal

Lyne Bessette Liberal Brome—Missisquoi, QC

Very good.

As you just mentioned, the government is investing $50 million in the food surplus purchase program. In buying $50 million worth of unsold food inventories, the government is making huge quantities of food available.

What is the government's plan for redistribution? You touched on it, but many businesses have already contacted me with questions. Is there a timetable for rolling out the program?