Helping Farmers in Crisis: Agricultural Sector Left Unsupported During COVID-19 Pandemic By: Madeleine Frechette

Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified long-standing vulnerabilities within Canada’s food system. News reports have highlighted, for example, grocery stores’ struggles to keep certain items stocked, livestock herds being culled in huge numbers due to bottlenecks at meat processing plants, and produce sitting wasting in farmers’ fields due to restaurant closures and migrant labour shortages. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the structural insufficiencies of the country’s food system, including unreasonably long supply chains, and an overreliance on just-in-time global imports and high-input farming. This newfound awareness has changed consumer behaviour and increased demand for locally grown foods, and many Canadians have looked to non-traditional outlets to put food on the table. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, for example, have seen a surge in registrations nationwide, with many farms across Ontario moving operations online to meet consumer demand. Although public support for a renewed, locally driven Canadian food system is increasing, a transition to such a system may not be feasible. 

Unfortunately, government policies and priorities have set us up with a food system that focuses on food as a tradeable commodity, and the agricultural sector as an economic engine, rather than an essential contributor to Canadians’ health and well-being. COVID-19 has exemplified the impact that disaster can have on such a food system, including unjust working conditions and unprecedented processing backlogs. The severity of impacts such as these will only continue to increase as the climate crisis worsens and the likelihood of similar disasters intensifies. Nonetheless, one thing remains certain throughout all disasters: everyone needs to eat. Given how few Canadians are directly involved in farming, despite increasing public support for locally grown foods, most people are unaware of the kinds of government policies and programs that must be reconfigured to ensure farmers are supported and able to contribute to a more resilient food future for Canada. 

What supports are available to Canadian farmers?

Make better use of existing support, Marie-Claude Bibeau tells ...
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For decades, the Government of Canada has supported the agricultural sector through the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). In recent years, AAFC has implemented several business risk management programs, designed to help producers offset income and production losses incurred from a disaster. Among these programs are AgriRecovery, AgriInvest, AgriInsurance, and most notably, AgriStability. The AgriStability program provides support to farmers when they experience a large margin decline. Program participants, ranging from communal organizations to individual farmers, may receive AgriStability payments if their farm’s production margin falls below 70% of their reference margin for the program year.

In light of COVID-19, AAFC has increased interim program payments from 50% to 75% of estimated final benefits. While this increase would provide additional funds to program participants across the country, it does not address the fundamental flaws in the AgriStability program. A convoluted application process, paired with lengthy wait times to receive program payments (which have worsened as a result of COVID-19), have transformed the supports meant to ease financial burden into an administrative hassle. These flaws have existed since the program’s initial release and have been cited by many as the reason for low program enrolment. In times of crisis, waiting months for emergency payments can be especially detrimental for small-scale family farms, which often lack the logistical capabilities and financial assets of corporate-run farms. Similar critiques have been raised with regard to the government’s Surplus Food Rescue Program, introduced in response to the pandemic to assist in the management and redirection of existing food surpluses. The requirements of the program favour corporate-run farms, as priority has been given to applicants with the experience and capacity to handle surplus, from purchase to distribution, in the most cost-effective way.  

How are farmers reacting?

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While the shortcomings of agricultural risk management programs like AgriStability have been amplified by COVID-19, it should be noted that the Canadian agricultural sector fervently advocated for program reform in the years prior to the pandemic. However, after years of inadequate responses on the part of the Canadian government, the agricultural sector has been left largely unsupported in navigating the COVID-19 food landscape. Understandably, Canadian farmers and agricultural organizations have grown increasingly frustrated over the lack of assistance provided to agricultural workers during the pandemic. 

Officials from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have referred to AgriStability and other federal, provincial, and territorial business risk management programs as ineffective and untimely. They believe the program should be abandoned altogether, which is a seemingly viable option reflected by low levels of program enrolment. Their feelings echo those of the National Farmers Union (NFU), which has called for the reconfiguration of the AgriStability program, as program participants are more susceptible to financial harm than those currently not enrolled. Similar attitudes have been expressed by the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, the Canadian Mushroom Growers’ Association, the Potato Growers of Alberta, the Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley, the Grain Growers of Canada, the Alberta Beef Producers, and the Canadian Cattleman’s Association.  One Manitoba pork producer even likened the government’s COVID-19 support to being handed a glass of water while your house is on fire. 

What comes next for Canadian farmers?

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As nationwide consensus from agricultural organizations confirms the inadequacies of current COVID-19 assistance programs, what steps should be taken to provide support for farmers in crisis? While current programs like AgriStability would benefit from reconfiguration, focus should remain on long-term solutions, both during and after the pandemic. The National Farmers Union has emphasized the need for long-term agricultural investments rather than emergency programming, as public investments in stable farm operations will create a stronger system, thereby reducing the need for emergency payments. The NFU has also recommended a move away from agribusiness and highly concentrated farm ownership in order to create a system that not only welcomes, but actively supports family farms. Food Secure Canada has also provided numerous recommendations for post-pandemic policies, which include policies that incentivize ecologically sustainable farming practices, support local and regional food webs, promote Indigenous food sovereignty, and champion fair wages and justice for all food system workers. 

Despite the unfortunate conditions endured by farmers across the country, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have provided an extraordinary opportunity for change to occur within the food system. Renewed government programming would provide more to the agricultural sector than support for farmers in crisis. If implemented correctly, new agricultural support programs could promote ecological farming practices (incentivizing low-input, climate-friendly approaches in particular), support Indigenous food sovereignty, and improve food security nationwide. A resilient food future is possible in Canada, but it must start with supporting Canadian farmers. 

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