Bibeau faces off with opposition MPs over pandemic supports

Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau confirmed to a parliamentary committee that the cost of business risk management programs would exceed its usual expense because of COVID-19.

Typically around $1.6 billion is spent on the programming each year, but on May 12 Bibeau told the standing committee on agriculture that the amount is “expected to be even greater this year.”

She did not provide an estimate of how much more she expects the cost of BRMs to be as a result of the pandemic, despite calls from industry to reform supports for the sector and offer more than the additional $252 million being made available by Ottawa.

“I know that producers would like to have these programs more generous and we are working with the provinces on this issue,” she said, noting the federal government is trying to make programs, particularly AgriStability, easier to access.

AgriStability is triggered when producers experience a large margin decline, and is paid for by federal and provincial governments.

A reform of the program, and other BRM offerings, was expected to take place this summer but has since been delayed because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, producer groups continue to criticize the programs available.

“Farmers can’t simply turn their backs on the business risk management programs,” Bibeau said in French.

During her one-hour appearance at the digital committee meeting, Bibeau faced regular criticism from opposing MPs for not offering more assistance to farmers, with many of them citing the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s $2.5 billion funding request.

“Measures have been made and continue to be made, but the risk management programs are $1.6 billion and it could be more, we have room to manoeuvre,” she said in French during a response to that criticism.

Bibeau was also asked how and when the federal government’s $77.5 million commitment to improve work conditions for processing facilities and producers by helping in the purchase of personal protective equipment would be spent.

“It’s a matter of a few weeks, we will make the criteria known very shortly,” she said, adding Ottawa is still in consultations with stakeholders on the matter. “These funds will have to be dispersed before fall, these funds are to be utilized before the end of September.”

She also faced criticism for deciding to stop field research, given the importance of that work to the grain and oilseeds sector.

“We intend to start over the research work at the pace that other research centres will be able to re-open, following the recommendations of local or provincial health departments,” she said in response.

Bibeau also expressed optimism in the number of temporary foreign workers arriving in Canada, telling her colleagues on the committee that, compared to last year, 86 percent of workers arrived in March.

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