Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak to the bill. It is very important, whatever we do in the House, that we listen to farmers and food groups, those people who produce food for us. We should not only listen to them in the House or at committee; we should get out there and listen to farmers.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of going with the member for Papineau to an international ploughing match. Yes, he did a great job of turning over the soil. More important, that day we held a round table with farmers from across Ontario. They had concerns about what the Conservative government was or was not doing. It is great sometimes to sit down with farmers, whether it is out there or in committee, and listen to them. Sometimes our bureaucratic system puts things forward that it thinks is good for the people who produce our food, but it is not always.
Overall, this is not a bad bill. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. There are parts in it that I think farmers need, and there are parts of it that could have been changed. During committee, we put many amendments forward, but they did not get much recognition from the government side. That being said, our party will vote for the bill because we cannot deny the good stuff in it for the farmers who need it.
The bill has quite a bit in it, as I mentioned before.
One of the most contentious parts of this was UPOV '91. There is no doubt it is an international code that is being used out there. Many other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, are using this system and it has worked well for them. However, just because it has worked well for those other countries and just because it was set up years ago does not mean we could have had more of a made in Canada approach to it. We could have put some things in there that would have helped small farmers and ensured them they could store or reproduce their seed.
I do not think any of the smaller growers that came forward had any intention of reselling the seed. It was not their intention, but they did not want someone to come in, like the big government, and take away their seed that they could reuse on their farm. It all came down to that.
I think the government knew it was wrong and it did not have clarification, but it put in an amendment, which I do not think went as far as the Liberal Party or even the NDP. Our language was stronger. However, it was one of the biggest issues that was brought up quite a bit throughout the committee.
When we look at the bill, there is so much in it. I guess it will be a “wait and see” bill. We will wait and see how farmers will deal with it, especially smaller farms, and their grain. There were so many other people coming forward and recommending UPOV '91. Many people who produced seed said that it could give Canada a big advantage. With this new legislation, we could develop more varieties in Canada and we could sell them to the United States. There is a good side of it, but we could have both.
Imagine, some of the varieties we have developed with spring wheat and canola all came from research in Canada. However, the researchers or whoever was producing that product had to be protected. Part of this bill is there for that.
As we go forward, with climate change and various changes in consumer tastes, we will have to be on the leading edge to ensure we have the right varieties and products out there. It is important, but the government should step up to the plate and do more research. We can say that they will be protected and that we will produce more and better varieties for small and large growers alike, but the problem is the government sometimes does not have the money for the research to do that as we move forward.
We had some amendments because we had some problems with the bill. All we can do is to hope that the smaller producer is not going to be penalized and have to go to lawyers to protect themselves when they have that bit of seed in their bins. We have been reassured of that, but I think we still could have had stronger language for when the time comes.
We listened to the different groups who came forward on what is happening in agriculture, which is that farms are getting bigger, and that for those that may not be getting bigger, they are becoming more intense with higher costs. The costs have doubled for fertilizer, seed, or whatever farmers use. At the end of the day, of course, they are dealing with more money.
Many times we see that the couple of hundreds dollars that used to get a farmer through is just not enough any more. If a farmer has a couple of thousands acres, that farmer needs a minimum of half a million dollars to get through. Therefore, one of the big parts of the bill was the advance payments, and here is where the government could have stepped up to the plate.
It was a nice gesture by the government to increase the advance payments to $400,000, but after hearing many witnesses tell us about the size of their farms, what they were dealing with, and the amount of cash they needed to get through, it is not enough. For instance, we had representatives from the Canadian Canola Growers Association come forward. They said in a letter that that there should be an amendment to Bill C-18 aimed at streamlining the program and that it is important the government consider an increase in the maximum advance limit. The letter states that:
Farmers have indicated that an increase to the current limit would better reflect their financing requirements and make the program more valuable to their farming operation. We believe doubling the limit...
Indeed, they even went so far as to say “doubling the limit”. Therefore, I think the government missed the mark on this, and it could have done a little more consultation. I also think that the Conservatives had the opportunity at committee to sit down and listen to the farmers and to the numbers.
This is not free money here; we are not talking about giving farmers money. This is an advance payment. It is a loan. When farmers are putting in their canola, soya beans, or whatever, these are expensive crops, as well as all the inputs. By the time they see a return, it could be a year down the road. They could be seeding in May but they may not get a cheque for that crop until the following May. They are dealing with a lot of money, and it was shown very clearly at committee that the $400,000 was not enough.
Sometimes government has to step back and consider. The Conservatives did not do wrong with the $400,000, but just did not hit the right mark. I think they had an opportunity to increase the amount.
As I said, this is not money that is given to farmers. This is an advance payment that the farmers pay back. It is money in and money out. Therefore, I believe that this was another opportunity where the government could have made some amendments to reflect the amount of acreage that farmers have and the size of farms out there today.
We can look at the amounts that were brought forward and the defaults on these advance payments and consider how Canadian farmers are really good at producing food and at managing their finances. The default was at a very low percentage. The defaults could be due to some catastrophe on the farm or to the weather. However, the Canadian taxpayers are not going to be on the hook here because farmers have such a good track record of paying back those advance payments.
Therefore, it would have been a no-brainer for the government to increase that number even more. Down the road, I think the Conservatives will find out that they will have to do this. They are looking at history, but there is the reality of the amount of money that farmers are dealing with in agriculture now.
My colleague from Manitoba and I went to visit some farms and it is unbelievable what they put into the farms and the size of the tractors. We were all through Manitoba.
My last point is on the penalties. The Canadian Cattlemen's Association is also really concerned about these penalties. For instance, if someone is packing carrots on a farm and did not have a hair net on, which I know is is not right, the farmer could be fined $5,000. I do not know where the Conservatives came up with these penalties.
As the Canadian Cattlemen said, they need the government to be a coach, not a referee, to help them produce better, safer food. They want government to come in and help them, show them how to do it, but not come in with a hammer and say, “Okay, you didn't have a hair net on or you didn't do this, and you're going to be fined $5,000.”
That is a big problem with the bill. I do not know where the government comes up with these big penalties, but the money should be spent helping farmers and operators produce better quality food instead of just coming in with a hammer. The Canadian Cattlemen's Association has stated that in its presentation.
I am open to any questions from members.