Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons, Monday April 29, 2019 in Ottawa. Bibeau is not worried about food shortages overall but acknowledging really challenges in the industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Bibeau says Canada has enough food but COVID-19 will still bring challenges

The federal government has announced millions in new spending for farmers this week

Higher prices and less variety on store shelves is a possibility as the agriculture industry confronts a wide range of challenges created by COVID-19, the federal agriculture minister said Wednesday.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she’s confident the country has enough food and stopped short of suggesting Canadians start growing war-era “victory gardens” to supplement their own supplies.

But everything from a potential labour shortage on farms to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers at food processing plants will have an impact, she said.

“I think our system is strong enough and resilient enough that it will adapt, but these days it is particularly challenging,” Bibeau said during a video news conference Wednesday, where she fielded questions from her home in Sherbrooke, Que.

“I do not worry that we will not have enough food,” she added.

“But we might see some differences in the variety and, hopefully not, but maybe in the prices as well.”

READ MORE: Canada unveils $50M boost to help agriculture sector with 14-day COVID-19 quarantine

The federal government has announced millions in new spending for farmers this week alone, including $20 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency so it can have enough inspectors on hand to carry out its work.

The funds are partially designed to guard against the potential for CFIA inspectors to be stricken with the virus and be unable to work, further slowing down an already struggling supply chain.

The other labour issue facing the industry is a farm worker shortage. Some 60,000 temporary foreign workers come to Canada annually to work on farms and in plants but border closures mean fewer are expected this year.

They are also required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, and this week, the federal government announced $1,500 per worker to help employers cover salary payments or revamp living quarters to ensure workers can abide by distancing protocols.

Checks on those measures will be carried out by local, provincial and federal authorities, Bibeau said.

Workers’ rights group Justicia for Migrant Workers has raised concerns the onus is actually being placed on workers — not their employers — to comply.

They cite a video being produced by the Ontario Provincial Police telling workers in Spanish what their obligations are, and say there are already efforts by communities to “name and shame” migrant labourers.

“We find it disconcerting that local community members are so concerned about migrant workers’ social distancing while in public, yet do not share the same concerns regarding the lack of protections and accommodations provided by the employer to ensure that migrant farm workers are able to socially distance in their workplace and home,” they said in a statement Wednesday.

The arrival of temporary foreign workers is being stymied by global travel restrictions, and what’s ordinarily an annual shortage of several thousand workers is likely to be made worse, Bibeau said.

The government is examining efforts to get unemployed or under-employed Canadians into jobs on farms, she said.

That’s despite the fact that the very reason the temporary foreign worker program exists is due to Canadians not wanting those jobs — and farmers don’t necessarily want to hire them either, as the work can require extensive training. Many workers return to the same area every year because they’ve developed a specific skill set.

“It’s a challenge, but we have to do even more to encourage them to join the industry,” Bibeau said of the workers the government hopes to recruit.

Another issue facing the sector is outbreaks in processing plants. An Olymel pork processing plant northeast of Montreal reopened this week after the spread of illness among its workers forced a two-week shutdown.

READ MORE: Scheer, Conservatives raise concerns about WHO data, relationship with China

The Cargill Meat Solutions plant south of Calgary, which represents more than one-third of Canada’s beef-processing capacity, announced this week it is idling its second shift of workers.

The union representing those staff said there have been 38 cases of COVID-19 at the plant in High River, Alta.

Bibeau said she is reviewing a pitch by the cattle industry to help weather the crisis. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association wants a federally co-ordinated “set-aside” program that would enable producers to keep their animals longer.

The program would slow down the supply chain because there’s not enough processing capacity, the group has said.

The Conservatives called Wednesday for Bibeau to immediately implement that program and be far more transparent about what else the government is examining.

“Farmers, producers and processors work hard day and night to ensure that Canadians have the food they need while they stay home,” three Conservative MPs who work on agriculture issues — John Barlow, Richard Lehoux and Lianne Rood — wrote in a letter to Bibeau.

“These hard-working Canadians need to know that their jobs will be safe during this pandemic and that they can continue to produce world class products.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Peace on the water

Harrison Lake was rather serene recently with the lack of usual traffic… Continue reading

UPDATE: Police oversight agency investigating after shots fired Saturday night in Chilliwack neighbourhood

RCMP reported a ‘distraught male’ fired at police officers on Christina Drive – IIO is on scene Sunday

Prospera Credit Union, Westminster Savings lay off over 100 staff following historic merge

2020 merger was largest credit-union merger in Canadian history

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Trudeau to seek 10 days of paid sick leave for Canadian workers, says talks are ongoing

Paid sick leave is key to keeping COVID-19 spread under control, prime minister says

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

Vancouver Island hasn’t seen a new homegrown case of COVID-19 in two weeks

Island’s low and steady transmission rate chalked up to several factors

Eight people arrested in Victoria homeless camp after enforcement order issued

Those living in tents were given until May 20 to move indoors

Andrew Weaver says he was ready to defeat John Horgan government

Independent MLA blasts B.C. Greens over LNG opposition

20 dead in COVID-19 outbreak at Langley Lodge

There were two new cases detected, according to the Lodge’s update

44% fewer passengers flew on Canadian airlines in March 2020 than in 2019

COVID-19 pandemic has hit airlines hard as travel remains low

UPDATE: One person dead, two in critical condition after Highway 1 collision in Langley

A man and woman were taken to hospital in critical condition

Commercial rent relief applications open as feds encourage landlords to apply

Program would see government cover 50 per cent of the rent

Most Read