Mr. Speaker, I hope that no one will question the relevance of this debate today, despite the fact, as I mentioned earlier when I asked a question, that the Bloc Québécois was able to get an emergency debate on the crisis in the hog and beef sectors not too long ago on February 13.
Nevertheless, I am pleased that the member for Malpeque has reopened this very important debate, because of the government's response to the unanimous report tabled by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
The committee's study was not exhaustive—that would perhaps be going too far—but it was still quite detailed on the crisis in the livestock sector. If only the responses had been completely satisfactory. Earlier, we heard the minister make an optimistic speech about how everyone is happy and all is well. But if that were the case, we would not be here today still talking about the situation. The reason is simple; we are talking about it because the government's responses to the report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food are largely unsatisfactory.
We know that this crisis is due in large part to the increase in the value of the Canadian dollar. The soaring prices of animal feed and the decline in the international hog market have also led to huge losses for producers.
A few moments ago, I spoke about the costs of conforming to specified risk material regulations for beef producers. To this day, I do not understand how the Canadian government came up with such regulations, knowing full well that the Americans would not abide by them. The government has almost deliberately created unfair competition against our producers.
Yet these producers are by no means refusing to comply with the regulations. No one wants a repeat of the mad cow crisis. They are well aware that specified risk materials must be disposed of. The regulations are here to stay.
However, the Fédération des producteurs de bovins du Québec asked for $50 million in aid over two years. Just now, the minister trivialized the situation and rejected this request out of hand. He gave the excuse that producers have been requesting such assistance for four or five years and that the Bloc Québécois has done nothing. The Bloc Québécois is rising in this House, we are asking for and demanding this aid because we support our farmers. We stand up for Quebeckers, as we have always done so well, and often we get results. In this case, the government is asleep at the wheel. Nothing has been done about specified risk materials.
The producers are asking for $50 million over two years. The minister finds that somewhat ridiculous because producers have been making this request for four or five years. If it is so ridiculous, if it is not so serious or so complicated as all that, then I do not understand why the money is not already in the federation's coffers. This money would be used for a very simple purpose: to allow beef producers to conform to these regulations.
At present, producers must pay for the removal of specified risk materials from carcasses, and for their collection and burial. They are not sure what to do with the materials. We could invest in the biodiesel plants in Quebec so these materials could be used for biofuel. This waste would no longer be buried and they would know what to do with it. This might be worth investing in.
I did not know that specified risk materials would become a symbol of Canadian unity. The minister reaffirmed Canada's sovereignty when he stated that we are different from the United States. Big deal. SRMs are not going to become a symbol of Canadian sovereignty.
Naturally, standards must be harmonized to the greatest extent possible. If the Americans are not interest, Canada, even if it continues to regulate this area, should help our producers and processors so that they are not penalized by these regulations. For their part, American producers do not have to worry about disposing of specified risk materials as do our producers.
So now, back to pork producers, since they were the main reason we asked for an emergency debate in February. We heard a lot of testimony in committee, but also in our offices, because there had been a campaign.
I simply want to point out that this industry is very important in Quebec. Total agricultural revenue is $6.198 billion dollars. Of this, 13.6%, or $844.9 million, is from pork production.
That is the economic impact of the pork industry in Quebec. It accounts for 28,200 jobs and $1.3 billion in value added. This industry is present in several different regions of Quebec. There are perhaps 400 pork producers in my riding. And the president of the Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec, Jean-Guy Vincent, lives in my riding.
It is the leading bio-food export product in Quebec and ranks twelfth among products exported from Quebec. Pork production provides a trade surplus of $890.5 million, thus producing a positive agri-food trade balance of $289.2 million, a significant amount. Pork production also generates over $225 million in government revenue, which is one of reasons that the pork industry is important economically. And it shows why, even today, we need to talk about the crisis in this sector.
I mentioned the emergency debate that was held here in February. The reasons we asked for that debate are just as relevant today, because of the unsatisfactory responses the government has given to the committee's recommendations. We asked for the emergency debate because the livestock industry was going through a crisis caused by the rise in the value of the dollar and the costs of inputs, combined with a major drop in meat prices in the case of pork and additional costs to manage and dispose of specified risk materials in the case of beef producers. This is still true today.
Pork producers want an immediate program to guarantee loans—they got something that I mentioned earlier, but it is not exactly what they wanted—or take over the interest currently assumed by producers, while beef producers want emergency measures such as a $50 million assistance program over two years, as I just explained.
There were several reasons why this emergency debate was needed, including the silence of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food in the face of all the letters sent to them by producers, in addition to the first report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. Entitled “Study on the Collapse of the Beef and Pork Sector Revenues”, the unanimous report recommended transitional measures to alleviate the crisis as well as more long-term measures to improve the competitiveness of the industry.
When I said earlier that some good had come from the emergency debate, I was referring to the fact that, after the debate, the minister contacted the opposition critics to tell us that he wanted to move ahead on Bill C-44. All the parties agreed to fast-track the bill so that producers would have some cash flow.
Is has to be said that this is not exactly what producers wanted. It is also important to understand that this is still a debt. Agricultural producers will get loans, but they are still going into debt. Clearly, this is not a magic bullet, but in the short term, we could not disagree with such a measure.
Another program also just came into effect a few days ago, on April 14 I believe, with a view to ensuring that those producers who wanted to get out of the business could receive compensation for shutting down. Of course, the Bloc Québécois would prefer not to see our farms close down, one after the other. We will not solve the problem by simply paying them to shut down.
We need an agricultural sector that is strong, one that contributes to the Quebec and Canadian economy, instead of simply closing down our farms and ultimately being forced to import the products we need, which, incidentally, is already all too often the case. I would like people to become more aware of the importance of buying products from Quebec and Canada.
It is still a problem, despite Bill C-44 and despite the measures to allow farmers to get out. The government's responses are especially unsatisfactory over the long term. In that respect, the committee made some very specific recommendations concerning long-term measures. I will come back to this a little later.
I would like to quote from a letter that was distributed to all hon. members by the Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec, expressing just how serious the situation has become:
Given the seriousness of the crisis currently facing the pork industry, the assistance announced on December 19, 2007, the action plan to support Canada's livestock sector, is woefully inadequate.
Bearing in mind these concerns and others, to the effect that aid for producers must come through existing programs, the requests made by the Fédération des producteurs de porcs du Québec are, for the most part, being made within the framework of existing programs. The federation is asking for improvements and changes in the business risk management programs. They want the $1.5 million ceiling in the AgriStability and AgriInvest programs and the $3 million ceiling in the AgriInvest Kickstart program to be raised.
The federation also asked that the reference margins to provide appropriate support to producers be adjusted in light of the unique nature of the crisis and the persistently poor market conditions. It asked that the Canadian product labelling rules, designed to ensure that consumers can clearly identify where products come from, be tightened up.
Something was handed out in committee today. Was it the hon. member for Malpeque who brought that? I think he is in the middle of reading, but today in committee someone handed out pork loins. We looked at all the labels from all the angles and still wondered where that pork really came from. It is hard for the consumer to know, let alone those of us who are truly in the process of studying Canadian products in committee. It is even more difficult for the consumer to know whether he or she is buying pork loin from Canada, the United States or elsewhere, since that is not very clear on the label. It was rather difficult to know where the pork came from. The minister said that he is in the process of preparing a policy. I hope that the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food is not in the process of working for nothing and that our recommendations will be heard by the minister, because he says he is doing his share of the work. We cannot spend all this time and energy for nothing. Either way, I think the work of the committee is very important and that the minister should listen to its recommendations.
Creating a new fiscal envelope to support shared cost programs would allow for regional flexibility in the next generation of agricultural policies, the famous Flexi-Farm policies, which do not exist because there is AgriInvest, AgriStability and so on. In the end, the government did not think of introducing flexible measures, which we called for after the committee crossed Canada. Producers were unanimous about the need for such measures and made a point of telling us that it was important to put flexible measures and programs in place instead of very rigid national programs applying from coast to coast. When the provinces already had similar sorts of programs, they could no longer adapt or do anything. They were trapped. They could either get on board and duplicate federal initiatives or do nothing and not get any money.
I want to remind the government that all agricultural producers pay taxes. Every province has programs that are more or less effective, more or less good. Whenever a federal program is set up, it should be flexible. I am talking in particular about programs for pork producers. However, in the case of grain producers, the lack of flexibility is even more blatant, because they never receive CAIS payments. For the past 10 years, they have been in serious trouble, and they are the farmers who have suffered the most. Fortunately for them, prices have begun to rise recently, but they are calling for a program that could be called Flexi-Farm. The government can put that in its pipe and smoke it.
The letter ends as follows:
The advance payments program which has just been improved to include stock production, should not use the business risk management program as a collateral since that forces producers to pay back advances when they receive a payment.
This letter gave a good summary of pork producers' demands. I have also spoken at length about beef producers' demands, to make the point that even though some measures have been announced, the crisis is not over. Despite the cheery speech the minister gave earlier, the crisis in the livestock industry has not been solved.
That is why I congratulate the hon. member for Malpeque for bringing this issue back to the House today so that we can get the machinery working again and make not only the government but also the general public see that this problem has not been resolved.
The problem is that the programs I spoke about earlier do not work. We have been trying for a long time to figure out where to place the blame for the CAIS program. The Liberals and the Conservatives established it; we know that. But everyone agrees that it does not work.
Coming to power and simply changing the name of the program will not solve the problem. Blaming the former government will not solve the problem either. The minister must realize that changing the program's name did nothing to increase the producers' access to it.
They invest and say that there is $600 million available. Show me agricultural producers that have succeeded in getting any money. When they do manage to get advance payments, or some other kind of payment, there will be something else they have to fork out money for. It is quite ironic to say that money has been invested, but it is basically being put into one pocket and taken out of the other. That is often what governments do, and it is unfortunate.
The Conservative government made grand announcements, but the money is not getting to those who need it. AgriInvest, AgriStability and the advance payments program are simply CAIS programs under other names. On one hand, the government is putting money into a program, but they get it back through a different one. They have made some grand announcements, but the fact remains that farmers are not recouping anything. At the end of the day, the reality is that the government is paying itself.
We must always be cautious about these grand announcements and pay attention to the amounts that are announced. Unfortunately, they are often announced two to six times, but they should not be added up. Canadians would think there was an investment of billions and billions of dollars, when in reality, it is always the same $600 million program. Earlier, we heard some comments that gave me the impression that the problems in the agricultural sector were over, that there was no longer anything to be done or anything to be demanded, and that the producers were happy. The minister was patting himself on the back about everything that had been done.
We must give credit where credit is due. Some measures have been well received. That does not mean that the government should stop there and no longer make any effort. On the contrary, it must continue to find long-term measures to ensure that Quebec and Canadian producers remain active on the national and international markets. We are talking about exporters.
Not too long ago we had a clear advantage. The Canadian dollar was lower and productivity was higher than in the United States. When everything aligns so that our producers can, with all the necessary work, perform well nationally and internationally, things go well. But no matter what they want or how competent they are, there are times when the economy causes producers to face stiffer and more effective competition than before. I am referring to the United States, of course. The Americans have improved their productivity, and in some cases, the quality of their products. However, it is especially the rising Canadian dollar that is hurting us.
When the government simply watches what is going on and acknowledges that this is how it is and that we must wait, that is clearly not enough to get this entire industry back on track. There are two choices: the government can abandon the industry or support it. The Bloc Québécois would obviously choose to support it.
I was talking about the long-term measures people have been asking for. That is why I would like the government to take a more serious look at the committee's report. The report did a very good job of explaining long-term measures, especially in recommendations 3 and 4. The government's response to these recommendations did not satisfy the opposition parties, nor did it satisfy agricultural producers, who are not as happy as the minister would have us believe.
This is not about being happy or unhappy; this is about survival. In the livestock sector, this is about survival. If we do not come up with long-term measures and implement them right away—it should have been done the day before yesterday—that means we will no longer be supporting our agricultural producers.
Without support, we will lose our livestock industry.
Slaughterhouses are closing. One closed in Ontario and another in Quebec. The only one that is still open is the Levinoff-Colbex abattoir. People have been asking the federal government for help with this for years, but the government has not given them a penny. The government has to wake up and invest in our slaughterhouses so that this part of the production process happens here at home.
The government says it wants Canadian products, but soon, our products will not even be slaughtered here at home. How will we be able to talk about Canadian products when slaughtering and processing no longer happen here at home? We have to take a close look at this issue too.