COVID 19 crisis puts focus back on farmers: expert

B.C. government declares food cultivation, including farming, livestock, aquaculture and fishing as essential services, during the current COVID-19 crisis

By Fabian Dawson

British Columbia’s move to declare agriculture and aquaculture operations as essential services during the current COVID-19 crisis, will help consumers better understand the vital role farmers play in the province, says a food supply system expert.

“It will help us think beyond the supermarket and provide for long term resiliency while creating short-term relief,” said Dr. Tammara Soma, a food systems-planning researcher at Simon Fraser University.

“Food and food supply has become a core issue in this crisis and declaring our farmers as essential service providers puts the focus on what they do…their contribution has largely been undervalued because we take food for granted,” said Dr. Soma.

“Supermarkets play an important role…but we need to look more at where our food is coming from rather than where we are buying it from.”

Dr. Soma said the government should dedicate resources and money down the road to develop a strong, resilient and sustainable supply chain that revolves around farmers to make B.C. self-sufficient when it comes to food.

“We need to build on what we learn from this crisis to have self-sufficient food infrastructure all the time,” said Dr. Soma, adding the crisis provides an opportunity for farmers to connect directly with consumers to showcase the environment they work in.

The B.C. government yesterday announced that food cultivation, including farming, livestock, aquaculture and fishing, and businesses that support the food supply chain as essential services during the current COVID-19 crisis.

“This designation is a significant responsibility, and one we take seriously,” said John Paul Fraser, executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association.

“B.C.’s salmon farmers, and local businesses that support aquaculture are stepping up to do our part to ensure our food supply remains robust during this pandemic,” he said.

B.C.’s salmon farmers produce about three quarters of the salmon harvested in the province each year – more than 87,000 tonnes annually. That equates to more than 6.5 million, 6-ounce (170 gram) meals every week.

“Together with Canada’s farming community, we will work hard to keep Canadians nourished with healthy food at this unprecedented time.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) is calling on Ottawa for support as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic causes economic chaos.

A letter dated March 26 from the CAIA to Bernadette Jordan, the country’s fisheries minister, calls for multiple support measures it notes are available to crop and other livestock farmers in Canada, according to a report in

According to sources, quoted by the website, the aquaculture sector is concerned about getting any support in the CAD 82 billion aid package the Canadian government has made available to help businesses and individuals impacted by COVID-19.

“The Canadian government hasn’t mentioned specific supports for aquaculture farmers yet. Not once. Minister Jordan needs to be asked point-blank if the Trudeau government is going to support the aquaculture farmers to keep tens of thousands of essential food production workers from being laid off. Our local food supply for grocery stores and trade is at risk,” one Canadian industry figure, who asked not to be quoted by name, told Undercurrent News.

In the letter, CAIA calls for access to farm income supports.

“As you are aware, seafood farmers do not have access to other farm income and risk management supports that are available to crop and other livestock farmers in Canada. But we face unique risks,” the letter reads.

These “sudden, unanticipated market impacts have placed severe stress on our domestic seafood infrastructure — our ability to harvest, farm, process, and distribute seafood products”, CAIA told Jordan.

In the short term, CAIA has identified “critical needs” from the federal government. According to the letter, printed in part by, these include:

Access to Farm Income Supports: As you are aware, seafood farmers do not have access to other farm income and risk management supports that are available to crop and other livestock farmers in Canada. But we face unique risks as noted above.

Payroll support: Seafood farming companies are calling for immediate federal support by way of a grant of 25% of 2019 payroll costs or a minimum 70–80% payroll subsidy (as governments have done in UK and Europe) to businesses whose sales are drastically impacted but who still need workers. Significant losses in farmed seafood sales due to Covid-19 has severely impacted companies cash flows and is putting tremendous pressure on their ability to keep people working and prevent lay-offs. Financial payroll support is urgently needed from the Federal and Provincial/Territorial governments so farmers can keep their “essential” employees working.

Catastrophic loss protection: We are dealing with live animals that require 24/7 attention, often in very remote areas. By not having adequate staff, there is a risk of animal welfare impacts if we are unable to attend to feeding and plankton mitigation systems for finfish. For shellfish, reduction in ongoing husbandry activities like seeding, splitting down and tumbling could lead to loss of inventory and degradation of product quality due to overcrowding. The potential cascading effect of labour shortages on our farm sites due to COVID-19 could lead to major losses of stock – both in finfish and shellfish. If our sector is to survive such losses and continue to provide food to Canadians, access to specialized catastrophic loss support from the federal government would be needed.

Enhanced access for front line workers to COVID-19 testing and safety equipment: Our member companies have responded to the extraordinary circumstances created in the workplace by COVID-19, implementing safe zone protocols for employees and supply chain partners at farm sites, hatcheries, and processing facilities, and enabling employees to work from home, where possible, to enable farming operations to continue. However, our sector is somewhat unique in that farm sites are often quite remote and confined, and despite the measures that companies have implemented, some employees have chosen for their own safety not to work. These are workers with specialized skills that cannot be easily replaced. This situation could be alleviated to some extent if our workers had priority access COVID-19 testing and to safety equipment such as N95 masks, gloves and sanitizer.

Regulatory flexibility is needed: Given the worker shortages we are facing, our basic animal husbandry activities must take priority which means that some regulatory requirements will be very difficult to complete (e.g. sea lice count, AAR reporting, etc.). We ask that DFO inspectors be directed to be prudent and flexible in their compliance and enforcements activities over the coming weeks and months given the very real challenges our members are facing.

Targeted exemptions to border closings: We need exemptions for foreign vessels and crew who are contracted for work on our farms – harvesting and transportation. Federal direction to ensure essential transportation services are maintained. Some of our producers rely on commercial airlines to deliver their live product (e.g. fish ova). However, a number of major commercial carriers have declared they will no longer transport live animals due to COVID-19 concerns, and air cargo carriers charge four times the price.

(Image; Dr. Tammara Soma courtesy of SFU)