Ag committee meets online, opposition critiques federal COVID response

Opposition MPs used the first meeting of the standing committee on agriculture and agri-food since the pandemic began May 5 to critique the federal Liberal’s $252 million aid package for farmers and food processors.

Conservative MP Richard Lehoux charged the $100 million made available to help livestock producers deal with processing delays was not enough to cover producer costs, particularly if pork producers were forced to destroy animals.

Chris Forbes, deputy minister of Agriculture Canada cited the $77.5 million federal commitment to equip processors and others in the sector with the personal protective equipment required to keep operations running as an additional way government was responding to the issue, saying plans to launch the purchasing program will happen “as quickly as possible.”

The amount of money was “disappointing” to Yves Perron, a Bloc Quebecois MP, who contrasted Canada’s response to the $17 billion in aid being offered the American producers.

He also joined many of the MPs on the committee in criticizing the government’s decision to largely work within the existing business risk management frameworks and programs, saying they don’t work for most people and improvements are needed.

Alistair MacGregor, the lone NDP member on the committee, asked how long the federal government expected the money it was announcing to last.

Forbes said he expected the $100 million dedicated to set-asides to be spent in the coming months, but said there was no specific timeline for the $50 million dedicated to buying surplus food.

Forbes said the goal was to ensure the funding was out the door and in the hands of the industry as soon as possible, while MacGregor pointed out the $250 million being offered was less than 10 percent of what was asked of by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Conservative member Gerald Soroko took aim at the $125 million announced for AgriRecovery, a framework in which provinces and the federal government share covering a portion of the losses associated with a natural disaster.

The federal government committed to covering its 60 percent share of the costs, and announced the program criteria has been adjusted to cover 90 percent of farmers’ eligible expenses up from 70 percent, allowing some relief, even if provinces chose not to pay their portions.

But Soroko argued AgriRecovery is always funded $125 million and criticized the federal government for presenting it as “new money” to the public. Forbes made clear that Agriculture Canada regularly budgets, and has the authority to spend, $125 million but said that money was not being spent.

“We’re announcing effectively that we’ll make all of that available if needed, starting with the beef and pork ranchers and farmers, and then if needed in other areas,” he said.

It was the first of a series of committee meetings taking place through video conferences. While there were some challenges with translations and connections throughout, MPs will continue to meet online as Ottawa remains largely shut-down due to the pandemic.

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