Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to use this opportunity afforded by this occasion to let farmers and their families know that the government and indeed all Canadians share their distress when trying times hit. More than this, I think I can speak for every Canadian when I say how much we admire and respect those who, in the face of unpredictable disasters, which could be anything from drought, flood, BSE, any number of calamities, continue to make the Canadian agriculture industry the best in the world.
However, as much as our sympathy and admiration might be appreciated, they are not enough when it comes to securing the future of Canadian farmers. In the face of serious challenges to the viability of farm operations, it is incumbent upon the government to offer support that will keep our farms vital and productive.
We know from the recently published 2003 Farm Income Forecast that, while not all farmers came out of 2003 with empty pockets, the story for many was not a happy one. Caught in the pincer of low sales and prices for cattle as a result of the BSE situation, a Canadian dollar that appreciated against the U.S. dollar and an ongoing drought in areas of the west, some farm operations saw their incomes squeezed painfully hard.
Not one of us can prevent acts of God or control the decisions of another country. What we can do, however, is manage the risks that are endemic to farming, risks like BSE or drought.
That is one of the key aspects of the new agricultural policy. With business risk management tools in place, farmers will have a buffer against the bad times that nature cannot help putting us through now and then. Instead of reacting to bad times, we are preparing for bad times.
The new Canadian agricultural income stabilization program, or CAISP, is specifically targeted to help farm income against small or large declines. This new program, developed with input from the industry, is a shift away from the ad hoc payments, which used to be the typical response when disaster hit, toward full time overall protection that is here before it is needed. CAISP is here in 2004 for producers.
Production insurance will replace crop insurance to allow for the inclusion of other commodities that were not covered under crop insurance, and there are other improvements that make this program more user friendly than its predecessor: average production periods are longer, payments are faster and it complements the CAIS program.
However we did not leave producers in the lurch by waiting until these programs kicked in. Program payments in 2003 were close to $5 billion. That clearly demonstrates that the government was there to help reduce the impact of the past unfortunate year.
In addition to income support payments, last year we saw the government announce special funding specifically targeted to the BSE crisis; the BSE recovery program and the cull animal program, for example.
The record is very clear on all the ways that the government has financially supported the agricultural industry, nor is this support given begrudgingly. In fact, one might even say that it is self-serving. Canada's agricultural and agrifood industry accounts for more than 8% of Canada's GDP and Canada's GDP is over $1 trillion a year.
Keeping that number high means keeping our agricultural industry producing. I can assure everyone in the House that is the goal of the government. That is why we have the agricultural policy framework. That is why we back supply management. That is why we have financial farm programs. That is why we are working strenuously to convince our trading partners to open their borders to Canadian cattle and beef. That is why my colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, is making every effort to listen to Canadian farmers.
Canadians have every right to be proud of the agricultural industry in this country. It is recognized worldwide for the safety and the quality of the food it produces. It is at the forefront of innovative production practices and products and makes sure that the environment gets mixed into the production equation.
We have a good thing going for us with our agriculture industry and we are going to keep it that way. There are bad times now and then, and that goes with the territory, but the industry and the governments working together can beat the bad times every time. The federal government, the provincial and territorial governments, and the industry are in the process of realizing the vision embodied in the agricultural policy framework.
Across the country, programs are unfolding to keep the industry moving on a course headed for prosperity: programs to enhance food safety and quality; programs to help science and innovation move agriculture forward; programs to protect the environment; programs to help farmers and their families deal with social and financial pressures; and programs to take up the financial slack when necessary. These programs will also be subject to an annual review to make sure they continue to respond to the needs of the industry.
At the same time, knowing that the success of our industry relies in part on exports, we are pushing hard in the international arena, at the WTO, to secure a level playing field for our farmers so that they can compete on a fair basis in the global market.
The government is doing all the right things to keep Canadian agriculture on track. We are proud to work with our farmers, to make sure they are ready to face a new day with confidence in themselves and in the system that they have helped create.