Have the past two years become the “new normal” in agriculture?



The 2020s and 2021s have been anything but straightforward for Canada’s $ 139 billion agriculture and agri-food sector, after the global COVID-19 pandemic shocked the global economy and disrupted its supply chains.

Panic of buying empty grocery shelves. Shipping containers full of goods have been stranded on trains and at ports due to transport bottlenecks. Due to labor shortages, some crops rotted in the fields, while processing lines at manufacturing plants also lacked workers.

Last summer, a devastating drought burned fields and decimated crops in large areas of North America, including the Canadian prairies, while wildfires threatened ranchers in British Columbia. More recently, flooding killed thousands of cattle, also in British Columbia, as farmers rushed to rescue their surviving animals by boat.

Some of these events can be temporary blips. Others appear systemic, like transportation bottlenecks and labor shortages, not to mention climate change. Which begs the question: have the past two years become “the new normal” for the agricultural sector?

“I sure hope not,” said Bob Lowe, an Alberta breeder who is also president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. “We were hit pretty hard. “

The beef industry, which was seen as an essential service during the pandemic, has also had its challenges. In April 2020, the Cargill plant in High River, Alberta. – one of the country’s largest meat processing operations – was forced to shut down temporarily after COVID swept through it, infecting 350 of the plant’s 2,200 workers. Two of them died.

The closure resulted in a backlog of cattle awaiting slaughter. “When you have a plant that processes about 45 percent of the livestock in Canada and it shuts down, it hurts,” Lowe said.

The federal government would eventually create the livestock fallowing program to help cover the higher costs of feeding these market-ready cows. But then Mother Nature threw another curved ball at farmers: massive drought.

Extremely dry conditions across much of western Canada and parts of Ontario have pushed up feed prices. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba account for about 85 percent of the country’s beef cattle, almost half of which are in Alberta alone. Pastoralists have struggled to keep their herds fed and intact.

The drought of 2021 is believed to have been among the driest on record. And according to an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada assessment in July, it affected 93% of farmland in Western Canada.

“Without a doubt, the drought has affected growers more than COVID,” Lowe said.

In August, Ottawa pledged $ 500 million in AgriRecovery assistance to farmers affected by drought, while the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Columbia Briton paid a combined $ 342 million. (Sixty percent of AgriRecovery’s support comes from Ottawa, while the provinces cover the rest.)

But even three months later, on November 9, the Canadian Drought Monitor showed extremely dry conditions continued over large swathes of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as parts of British Columbia. and Ontario.

The effects of climate change on agriculture are not going to go away, said Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson from her home in Prince Edward Island.

Robinson is a sixth generation soybean, hay and barley producer.

“This could be our new standard: that there is nothing normal about the climate anymore,” she said. “The climate problem is very real, and it is upon us. We must respond, but we must respond together.

Canada’s agriculture ministers agree. In a joint statement after their most recent meeting, they said tackling climate change must be at the heart of Canada’s plans.

“We all want to make sure that our agriculture is sustainable and that our farmers and agri-food entrepreneurs are successful,” said the federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Marie-Claude Bibeau After the meeting.

The current Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year funding framework between the federal government and the provinces and territories, expires in March 2023, and agriculture ministers are negotiating a new one.

The sector faces many challenges, according to Robinson, from complex geopolitical challenges – such as the need to defeat the dispute settlement function of the World Trade Organization by former US President Donald Trump – to domestic issues, such as improving agricultural research, increasing access to broadband Internet. , and strengthen support for farmers’ mental health.

Robinson says it can sometimes feel like you’re on a treadmill, where the speed just keeps on increasing and you’re afraid of falling.

“We (the farmers) are at the mercy of so many things. “

This article first appeared in iPolitics Holiday Magazine which went into print in early December.

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