Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a few comments on the issue that is before the House and the motion that is before the House today.
There is no question that the financial difficulty facing many Canadian farmers this year is of great concern to all of us: to myself, to the members of the government, to the agriculture and food community and indeed, to all Canadians. I know very well how difficult the times are for a number of Canadian farmers every year, but in particular, this year.
At the same time, I do not want to lose sight of the larger picture, not diminishing the problems, as I say, that a number of producers have. I want to remind all hon. members that the fundamentals of the agriculture and food sector remain on the whole very positive. On a national basis, farm income is only slightly below the five year average. I remind the House that is on a national basis.
Thanks to the safety net programs that we have in place, the cattle industry is prospering, supply management sectors are sound and, in spite of price instability, our hog sector continues to claim an ever increasing share of North American production, laying the groundwork for the future.
In addition, investments in the agriculture sector are up and food exports are increasing, in particular those of processed food products so that we get the value added and the jobs here in Canada. That is certainly an important area of growth for the future.
Unfortunately, however, some commodities in some regions are in trouble. These farmers are dealing with an extended period of low commodity prices but not extended to the extent that some of the members opposite are trying to make us listen to. We know that the prices of commodities in 1996-97 were some of the highest prices that we have had in the industry for a number of decades. The situation, however, has been aggravated by turmoil in the financial markets around the world, prolonged by the increasing use of subsidies in the United States and the European Union and made worse this spring in some areas by excessive moisture or, in other areas, by drought in certain parts of the country.
I remind the House that farmers have not been left to face these challenges alone. We have been working with them and the provincial governments to develop both short term and long term solutions. I remind everyone that agriculture is a joint responsibility of both the provincial and the federal governments as so declared in our constitution.
I want to begin by making some comments on the short term solutions. Agriculture income disaster assistance, or AIDA, is putting $1.5 billion into the hands of Canadian farmers in need over a two year period. So far 16,000 farmers across the country have received money from AIDA. Over $220 million has been distributed. It is averaging just a little less than $15,000 per producer. Applications are continuing to be processed and cheques are being mailed out even as we speak today. Over half of these cheques have gone to farmers in the hardest hit provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Farmers continue to receive support from other safety net programs as well. This spring changes were made to the crop insurance program to put money into the hands of farmers in southwestern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan when excessive moisture prevented them from seeding. In addition, we worked with the province of Saskatchewan to give those producers access to up to $50 per acre for unseeded crop land this year and in future years.
A number of changes were also introduced to NISA, the result of which was more money for more farmers and faster. Twenty-four thousand farmers have already taken advantage of these changes. As a result, they have been able to get more than $260 million out of their net income stabilization account. That is what the program is there for. It is a contribution from the federal and provincial governments and individual producers. The account will be available for producers to draw on in the down years when it is needed.
I remind everyone that another 80,000 farmers have triggered the opportunity to take money from their NISA accounts. There is another $900 million in those accounts which they can withdraw right now if they need to. These programs and the adjustments we have made to them are closing the gap between farmers' current incomes and their five year averages. Our safety net system is helping farmers to stabilize their incomes in the middle range between the higher and lower income years.
I am not suggesting that our farm income protection system is perfect. There will never be a system that is all things to all people under every condition, every day of the year and every year. What I am saying is that we do have a solid foundation in place and, together with all the players, we are working very hard to build on that foundation.
We have already made changes to AIDA to keep money flowing to producers between now and the end of the tax year. Further changes are also being considered, including coverage of some of the negative margins.
I continue to meet with colleagues in cabinet, in caucus, in the provinces and with farmers themselves. I can assure the hon. members that the government is looking at a variety of options to give more resources and support to farmers.
In addition to the short term measures I have talked about, I am also working on long term solutions. Together with our partners we are rebuilding, renewing and revitalizing our farm income protection system. The system must encourage farmers to make production decisions based on market conditions. It must be national in scope and available to farmers across the country regardless of region or commodity produced. It must respect Canada's obligations under the international trade agreements. A safety net structure that invites countervail or other trade problems will only do harm not good. It must not encourage overproduction.
Canadian farmers are committed to responsible stewardship of their land and water. The challenge is to fashion these guiding principles into a framework that is acceptable to 10 provincial governments while maintaining a cost sharing arrangement of 60% federal money and 40% provincial money. I do not think I have to explain how difficult a task that is.
Provincial premiers and their agriculture ministers recognize how critical this matter is to the Canadian primary producers. I will continue to count on their goodwill and diligence to develop a solution that is in the best interest of farmers across the country.
I continue to work and meet frequently with the national safety nets advisory committee. Safety nets are only one part of the solution. Stronger international trade rules are another part. Canada cannot afford to match the huge injections of cash to farmers that take place in the United States and the European Union. The reality is that our pockets are just not that deep. In the final analysis it is probably not even smart to try.
Higher subsidies only serve to drive commodity prices down further, encouraging overproduction and hurting farmers not only in Canada but everywhere in the world. I have made that point forcefully to my counterparts in the European Union, to my counterpart Secretary Dan Glickman in the United States, at the Cairns group meeting in August and at the Quint meeting in September. I will continue to make that point because that is where the discussions take place, at the WTO and those types of forums.
I plan to continue working to shore up support at the WTO negotiating table. Meanwhile, the government is working in other ways as well to provide support to the industry and the tools farmers need to adapt, diversify and compete in a rapidly changing global marketplace.
In the Speech from the Throne, we reaffirmed our commitment to research and trade development, two major building blocks of the future, particularly in the agriculture and agri-food sector.
We are also in the process of reforming the western grain handling and transportation system to ensure that farmers have a competitive, efficient system to get their goods to port and from there to markets around the world.
I am absolutely committed to working with farmers and provincial governments to build a highly competitive, increasingly diverse agriculture and food sector in the country. We are doing that through the short term and long term measures which I have outlined today.
I look forward to the constructive comments from members in the industry and members of the House. As much as we would like to have an ideal situation, there are always limited resources. Our challenge is to target those limited resources as fairly as we can to those who need the support.