The COVID-19 coronavirus has pushed the Canadian food industry to a tipping point, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA).
In a time of economic crisis and global uncertainty, the CFA took today (April 16) to call upon the Canadian Government to prioritize food production, second only to health, to ensure farmers can continue to feed 36 million Canadians every day.
“Agriculture, the foundation of our overall food supply, is at this very moment in time, at a tipping point,” said CFA president Mary Robinson today in a virtual press conference.
“If we do not, as a nation, address the rising challenges immediately, Canadian consumers could see a decrease in the amount and variety of food at their local grocery stores, as well as higher prices in the months ahead… farming families need immediate help and support to ensure our domestic food supply remains reliable and secure for Canadians coast to coast.”
Worker shortages, she explained, are impacting farms and food processing. Normally, spring is a time of great optimism and promise for farmers, but this year, many do not have enough workers to consider planting a 2020 crop, stated Robinson.
Around the country, as well as in B.C., farmers are making decisions on whether to plant, skip the 2020 crop, or plant crops that are less costly, such as soybeans for animal feed instead of tomatoes for people.
Robinson said farmers are fearful that even if they do plant a crop, they will not have sufficient labour to harvest and process it. Already, farmers are facing increased costs associated with keeping livestock for an extended period, due to reductions in processing capacities. They are also facing an increase in costs associated with purchasing the necessary PPE for their workers.
“Will crops rot in the fields as we are seeing now happening in other countries?” she asked.
Robinson said that amid uncertainty surrounding migrant workers, the CFA is working with the government to create incentives to encourage Canadians, who would not normally seek jobs in agriculture, to do so this year.
Robinson said they must ensure Canada’s domestic food supply is secure, not only for the duration of the battle with the coronavirus but long into the future as well.
“Canadian farmers are feeling increasingly stressed, in fact right now some farmers are so worried about the mounting challenges, they are strongly considering halting their farming operations altogether,” said Robinson.
“This is a potential tragedy, one Canada cannot afford.”
The CFA and its members asked the government to establish an emergency fund to assist farmers in overcoming mounting costs.
“Clearly, government officials must focus on the recovery of people who are suffering from COVID, as well as preventing the spread of this pandemic,” said Robinson. “But, government must also ensure they are being strategic with regard to domestic food security.”
Canadian farmers are resilient, hard-working, and industries by nature. She said they are not ones too, ‘seek handouts’ and look to the government only as a ‘last resort.”
She implored Canadians to contact their local MP, and stress the importance of food supply.
“We need to know government, as it has done for other industries, is there for our farmers, so that we can continue to do what we do best; grow food to feed all Canadians,” said Robinson.
In B.C., fruit growers are facing similar challenges. And these challenges in relation to COVID-19 are compounded by three years of depressed fruit prices.
“Growers love growing produce and food for Canadians, their hearts are in it, but these are challenging times for them,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association.
Currently, apple prices are averaging 12.5 cents for the 2019 crop, less than ten per cent of retail store value.
“That’s down quite a bit, it’s down almost half from 2016,” said Lucas. “We’ve had three really tough years. And then when you put COVID-19 on top of that, growers are really facing some tough situations. There’s just not the financial resource that there would normally be to deal with some of these issues.”
Farming only part of the farm, or taking a year off, are tough decisions being considered by growers around the province.
B.C. cherry producers are also coming off of a financially challenging year in 2019, where intermittent rains caused production, and returns, to plummet.
Lucas said their organization is looking at how to bolster food security and ensure growers are producing, at an affordable rate, food for Canadians. He said the government needs to work with their associations in order to solve some of these issues, “break the log jam on some of the needs for resources” in order to ensure farmers can continue producing to capacity. Otherwise, Lucas reiterated Robinson’s point saying a failure to do so could result in a reduced variety of affordable food in supermarkets.
That being said, Lucas said Canadians will have enough food.
“No one is expecting a food shortage, but it’s supply and demand, and prices would be expected to escalate, if we don’t get this right,” he said.
Right now, growers are considering what they can’t do, as they face a weakened financial position due to COVID-19. Some farmers are spray-thinning fertilizer to the point where their trees lose their blossoms. This ensures the trees survive, but will not produce fruit that season.
However the key to doing this without harming the trees, is to do so before they start producing fruit. The alternative would be to abandon the crop later in the season.
“This call to action for the federal government really is urgent, because blossoms are starting in the South Okanagan. And so this is a critical time for growers,” said Lucas. “I think that’s the appeal of the CFA, is to make food production a priority.”
He said the BC Fruit Growers’ Association stands with the CFA in their call to action today. He explained that even other sectors of the growing industry in B.C. are facing challenges due to COVID-19, even those who have not faced depressed prices.
COVID-19, he added, has placed food security at the forefront of discussion.
“I think this really focuses on the importance of food security, and treating the industry with greater respect, and paying it more attention. Growers, as Mary said, are not complainers. They work hard, they work long hours, they pour their hearts into the farm. And frankly, it hasn’t been great,” he said.
He compared B.C. to other areas nations, or other provinces like Quebec, where he says they do, “assign a high value to food security and to agriculture as being the base of their society.”
He said this could be an opportunity to move forward on this in Canadian society, recognize the contributions of agriculture and the importance of food in the Canadian economy.