Mr. Speaker, I appreciate having the opportunity this evening to speak to the financial situation facing some of our agricultural producers and our government's response to the hardship that these growers are experiencing. I will be sharing my time with the member of parliament for Essex.
Mr. Speaker, you may ask why a member from a very urban riding in Toronto would want to stand up and speak on this issue this evening. Perhaps even more you might ask what an urban member could possibly know about the situation facing our farmers in Canada.
I would say to the members opposite that in fact my colleagues on the government side have done their job very well, but let me start with the why. I can only use as an example for the why something from a conversation that I had with the member of parliament for Essex, who so eloquently said that when we speak about the quality of life we are also speaking about the quality of the food we eat. That is what is integral to the quality of life. It begins with the food we eat. All of us need to realize that it is not just a rural issue but a national issue, and today I am proud to rise and say it is an issue that is important to the constituents of Parkdale—High Park.
I sat through the debate in which my colleague from the riding of Haldimand—Norfolk—Brant actually provided a very interesting statistic. He said that one in six jobs in Toronto is in the food industry. When I speak of the member for Haldimand—Norfolk—Brant, let me tell the House that I had an opportunity this summer to visit his riding and speak to his constituents about their concerns. I would say to those people if they are listening that they have a wonderful advocate for farming issues, and these are not just farming issues but national issues. He spoke to other colleagues who had come to the riding and we met with these people, listened to them and talked to them.
Let me use as another example my colleague who is the member for Barrie—Simcoe—Bradford. Her riding is perhaps 80% urban and 20% rural, but again she has talked to us and stressed what has happened to the farmers in her riding with the adverse weather conditions that Ontario farmers have experienced.
When we talk about it and people say that it is just a rural issue and the urban MPs do not care, that is not true. Actually it was last spring that the member of parliament for Toronto—Danforth organized a farm aid concert in downtown Toronto to bring this issue to everyone's attention. He did it to help the farmers and to help our urban colleagues understand just what an important national issue this is.
One of the members opposite this evening also spoke about the member of parliament for Malpeque and said that he hoped the farmers from Prince Edward Island were listening. I hope so too, because I would tell them that they have a passionate advocate who understands their issues and brings them to caucus on a regular basis. I also had an opportunity to meet with his constituents this summer.
Even more so, when I was on the foreign affairs and international trade committee and had the opportunity of chairing the international trade committee in the last session, I travelled with the committee across the country. We listened to farmers. We listened to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. We listened to the National Farmers Union. It was at that time that I learned that our member for Malpeque was once the president of that National Farmers Union.
It is funny how a city girl can actually not only learn a lot about what is going on with our farms and our farmers but also realize, as the member for Essex said, that it is about the quality of life that affects all of us.
What has been the approach of our government to help these growers who are experiencing these financial difficulties? At the beginning of the debate this evening, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food outlined the government's approach, which has been to stabilize incomes while working on several fronts to encourage long term growth in the industry.
First, we are investing in programs and services that are having a direct impact on the sector's ability to adapt and diversify in today's competitive global economy.
We are investing in innovation, in protecting our environment and in the safety of our food supply. We are investing in promoting trade which is so vital to the agriculture and food industry and to the Canadian economy in general.
I cannot stress enough how all parties across Canada should listen to what farmers and the agricultural federation have to say about what our position should be at the World Trade Organization and also as we negotiate the free trade of the Americas agreement.
From what I have learned over the last few years, I can only conclude that Canadian agriculture is successful and that current programs work well to stabilize farm income fluctuations for the vast majority of commercial operations. At the same time we recognize that some Canadian farmers are facing serious financial constraints. Low commodity prices, international subsidies and adverse weather have had serious impact upon some of our producers, particularly those in the grains and oilseed sectors who have experienced significant income decline.
We have all listened to the concerns of the farm community and understand the difficulties that some producers are facing due to circumstances well beyond their control. The government has worked with farm organizations and other levels of government to address the situation with financial programs designed to target its assistance to those who need it the most.
As my hon. colleagues are aware, after many months of extensive discussions with the provinces and territories, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food reached a national framework agreement on safety nets for farmers. The agreement, signed by all provincial and territorial ministers last July, provides for a total investment by the federal and provincial governments of up to $5.5 billion for farm income programs for the year 2000, 2001 and 2002.
The agreement was a significant step forward. For the first time ever, all agriculture ministers across the country agreed on a common integrated approach to our farming safety net programs. One of the most important aspects of the agreement is that it includes an ongoing income disaster program, a feature which the producers had actually called for.
Funding under the national agreement is based on the standard 60:40 federal-provincial cost sharing ratio. Over the three years of the program, the federal government will provide up to $3.3 billion to fund the most comprehensive safety net packages to date.
I should point out to my hon. colleagues that annual funding for safety nets now committed by the federal government is almost double what it was before the agreement was reached. The commitment of funds allows us to help farmers manage the risk they face from natural events and market fluctuations.
Specifically the government contributes a major portion of the funding for crop insurance and for the net income stabilization account which is a program designed to provide income stabilization to individual producers for long term. Farmers have the opportunity to deposit money each year into their net income stabilization accounts and receive matching government contributions. Farmers can then withdraw money when needed in lower income years.
The Government of Canada has also put in place the spring credit advance program that provides interest free loans for producers to help with the cost of spring planting. The program has been very well received by the farm community. An amount of $356 million in interest free money was delivered in the first year of the program.
There is also the advance payments program. Under the program producers can obtain loans of up to $250,000 for the storage of eligible commodities, with the federal government paying the interest on the first $50,000. This allows producers to market their crops when prices may be more favourable while still meeting their short term financial obligations.
As I mentioned, the three year framework agreement with the provinces includes disaster assistance that is targeted to those who need it most. Under the Canadian farm income program, $2.2 billion in federal-provincial money has been allocated for disaster programming for the 2000, 2001 and 2002 fiscal years. Applications for the 2000 tax year will be available very soon.
We are continuously improving our existing programs and looking at ways to help farmers manage risk. For example, changes were made to the NISA program last year to increase producers' access to their NISA funds. For 1999, thousands of those participants have made withdrawals of more than $400 million dollars. This program is doing what it was designed to do; stabilizing producers incomes when needed.
In conclusion, I believe that we are going in the right direction. The government with the help of all of my colleagues will continue to work for farmers across Canada to ensure that Canada's agricultural sector continues to be both competitive and strong.