A front row seat to the impact of COVID on agriculture

By MPP Toby Barrett

My past two years as Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) have been a front row seat to the impact of the pandemic on our agriculture production.

It is no exaggeration that our agri-food sector not only touches every corner of Haldimand-Norfolk, but every corner of Ontario.

Agri-food is vital sector and an economic powerhouse. Excellent soils and technological advances in food processing ensure we have one of the world’s most diversified industries. It supports more than 49,600 farms producing over 200 commodities and contributes $47.3 billion to provincial GDP. Agriculture employs 860,000 Ontarians from both urban and rural communities – representing over 11 per cent of our province’s labour force.

While other industries came to a near standstill in the past year, our agri-food exports rose to $17.2billion, up 4.2 per cent from 2019. This made Ontario the top agri-food-exporting province in Canada, followed by Saskatchewan.

Many are not aware of the complexities, the time and effort that goes into food production. Farmers have always been our unsung heroes. Over the past year, along the value chain we saw hard working and innovative producers, processors, distributors, retailers and front-line staff work tirelessly to meet unprecedented challenges. Moreover, our government worked diligently to ensure the continuity of the value chain to bring food to Ontario tables.

Like those in the industry, OMAFRA is dedicated to continuously enhancing food safety and animal health, and it continues to become a more modern regulator.

COVID-19 changed many things, but it did not change our need to eat and therefore our need to produce food.

An anchor of our support for farmers is our suite of robust risk management programs. In partnership with the federal government, we delivered $259 million to Ontario farmers through our farm income stabilization programs, AgriInvest and Production Insurance. As well, our government has permanently expanded the risk-management program from $100 million to $150 million. Farmers depend on these programs and partnerships in times of need when uncertainties hit.

We also expanded production insurance coverage for COVID-19-related production losses and enhanced agri-insurance coverage to include labour shortages due to the virus. Through the Feeder Cattle and Commodity Loan Guarantee Program, we backed over $250 million in operational loans, which had real benefits for more than 1,000 Ontario farmers.

Ontario is in an enviable position to fill the predicted future international demand for safe, high-quality product. We are competing with other jurisdictions, and that is why it is so vitally important that we advocate for our interests.

Research, innovation and commercialization are vital to maintain a globally competitive sector, capitalize on new and emerging market opportunities, contribute to a healthy Ontario, and support safe and robust food processing. This year, OMAFRA is investing up to $68 million in research and innovation, and over the past four years, has invested over $282 million. Our long-standing partnership with the University of Guelph, the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance and the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario help secure future opportunities.

We will always stand shoulder to shoulder with rural Ontario, even in the most difficult times, to grow more opportunities for farms and rural businesses. We will work to protect our critical food system from disruption while maintaining our responsibilities and funding programs without interruption.

Toby Barrett is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk