Ottawa — Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has confirmed any reforms to business risk management (BRM) programs are being delayed.
That confirmation came during a wide-ranging media availability Bibeau held Tuesday.
In March, Tom Rosser, an assistant deputy minister at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), said the government is looking at a number of options to improve the programs, which are often the focus of complaints from producer groups.
It was expected at the time Bibeau would have the recommendations in time for a previously planned meeting in July with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
BRM programs are funded by federal and provincial governments, at a cost-share ratio of 60:40. The cost has averaged roughly $1.5 billion in the past five years.
Changes to any BRM programs generally require two-thirds of the provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the market, according to federal officials.
Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that meeting has been delayed until October — and so too have plans to announce any BRM reforms.
Bibeau said her office is attempting to “build a new consensus” with the provinces.
“It’s not easy to get all the provinces at the same level, and us as well, finding a new consensus,” she said.
At the same time, Bibeau defended the current suite of programs and her government’s support for farmers in the midst of the pandemic.
“I understand that these programs are not at the level producers would want them to be, there are gaps, and we are trying to fill these gaps through ad hoc supports as well, and there will be more,” she said.
“We’re still working with the industry to identify the sectors who are most in need but still, these programs are working to a certain level.”
According to Bibeau, $1.6 billion could be available to producers under the current suite of programs and “double if farmers ask for that” and the situation they are facing.
“These programs are responding to the demand, according to the situation of course,” she said, repeating support is there for producers and more ad-hoc supports are coming.
In a Commons standing agriculture committee meeting Wednesday, Bibeau reiterated the available supports.
“One of my messages to farmers continues to be, these are important tools and please make use of them,” she said.
Bibeau said she is speaking with the provinces every week and despite the formal meeting being delayed until October, progress is being made.
“We are moving forward in the sense that we are putting some options on the table, discussing at what level one province would go, another one, us from the federal (side), so trying to find a consensus so how we can better support farmers,” she said.
Despite any imminent reform coming in the next few months, Bibeau said improving the programs is a priority.
“I can’t promise any deadline but this is top priority, this is the subject that is on the agenda each and every week,” she said.
The current agreement between federal and provincial governments was signed in 2017 and carried forward five programs aimed at BRM: AgriStability, AgriInvest, AgriInsurance, AgriRecovery and AgriRisk.
AgriInvest funds currently total $2.3 billion, according to Bibeau. She said the average producer has around $25,000 sitting in AgriInvest, which is a savings account program with matching government contributions. Funds can be withdrawn at any time to alleviate risk or for investment.
“It’s there to help producers in difficult situations when they need funding,” AAFC deputy minister Chris Forbes said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Supports offered by the other programs – particularly AgriStability – continue to frustrate producers, who argue it puts them at a competitive disadvantage on global markets because other countries offer more support for producers.
Bibeau was asked about Canada’s level of support during the pandemic for producers compared to that of the United States, where farmers are being given up to US$16 billion (C$21.7 billion) in coronavirus payments on top of additional direct payments and indications more support is coming.
“We can’t compare Canadian agriculture with another one. In Canada, the business risk management programs exist for a reason and it’s to (give) the farmers more predictability and support that they need,” she said, reiterating a recognition the programs could be better.
The current iteration of risk management support began in 2003 when provinces and the federal government agreed to standardize supports in a cost-shared policy framework.
Originally the programs were focused on income stabilization, but provincial and federal governments realized they were offering more coverage than they thought was needed.
Consecutive years of strong commodity prices also followed, resulting in higher levels of profitability and justification for governments to allocate funding away from risk management toward other areas, such as innovation and growth.
— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.