P.E.I. vows to fight federal decision to halt potato exports to U.S. over potato wart fungus

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Premier Dennis King said the P.E.I. government will consider all options at its disposal, including legal, to fight the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s suspension of fresh potato exports from the province to the U.S.

Seed potato exports to the U.S. were suspended on Nov. 2, triggered by the discovery of potato wart on two Island farms in October. In a news release issued earlier Monday, the CFIA announced it had expanded the ban to all fresh P.E.I. potatoes. King said the federal government’s decision was “extremely disappointing” and will immensely hurt the Island’s economy.

“The impacts of this decision will be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars and will impact the lives of families from Tignish to Souris and all points in between,” he said at a news conference Monday.

“The potato industry in Prince Edward Island is equivalent to the value of the auto industry in Ontario, the forest industry in British Columbia, the oil and gas industry in Alberta, and for a Canadian minister with the stroke of a pen in the face of good science and historical protocol to do this is inconceivable.”

This is solely a politically-based trade disruption that will limit trade in a year when potatoes are already in short supply.— Greg Donald, P.E.I. Potato Board general manager

King vowed to “fight this wrong decision” and said the province will aggressively negotiate with the federal government for “significant” compensation.

In the meantime, the province will start a $10-million emergency contingency fund to address the immediate needs of Island farmers, including crisis management resources and help with any costs related to dealing with the impact of potato wart, P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson said. 

Potato wart disfigures potatoes and reduces yield, making potatoes unmarketable, but is not a threat to human health. The fungus is extremely persistent and it can take more than 40 years before it fully leaves the soil.

The ban does not include potatoes that have already been processed, such as frozen french fries. Fresh potatoes are already brushed and washed before shipping to remove soil which could carry the fungus. 

WATCH | P.E.I. premier calls decision to halt potato exports to U.S. ‘inconceivable’: 

P.E.I. premier reacts to ‘devastating’ potato export ban

Premier Dennis King had some strong words for federal officials after the movement of all fresh potatoes from the Island to the U.S. was suspended due to a potato wart discovery. 1:11

Canada ‘must engage’ with U.S., ag minister says

The CFIA said it took the action after the U.S. notified Canada it would act if Canada did not take voluntary measures.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told a news conference earlier Monday that a U.S. federal order banning the imports would go beyond what is needed to reduce the risk of spread, and that it would be much more difficult to reverse.

“To resume trade as quickly as possible, we must engage with the U.S. regarding their concerns,” she said.

“We are taking a responsible approach that is based in science. It would provide the protection that our industry needs through this difficult time.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s ban on potato exports from P.E.I. to the U.S. due to the discover of potato wart fungus on the island could mean producers will have to destroy millions of kilograms of potatoes, according to the P.E.I. Potato Board. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The minister said she’s asked the CFIA to “redouble” its efforts to work with the province and industry to contain the spread of potato wart on the Island.

The federal government also said it is working on a plan to support farmers affected by the closure of the U.S. market, including rerouting stock currently in storage in P.E.I.

But King said Ottawa should have been fighting to make sure Canada’s trading values are “respected” by the U.S. He also said the suspension is not following science.

“How disappointing it was to hear the federal minister say publicly in a news conference today, as well as to me and [Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson] last night at least half a dozen times, that her decision that will potentially cripple our industry and sully our reputation around the world is being made against the acceptable science and protocol and is being made, using her words, to appease a trading partner. That’s not how trade relationships work,” he said.

“Minister Bibeau said today in her press conference that P.E.I. potatoes are of the highest quality and are safe. And I would say to her that if she truly believes this, that she would put this decision through the shredder immediately.”

King said Bibeau didn’t offer any timeline as to when the suspension will be lifted.

The decision comes amid one of the best potato crops in years.

Officials from the P.E.I. Potato Board join P.E.I. Premier Dennis King, centre, scientist Carolyn Sanford, second from right, and Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson, right, at a news conference about the potato wart issue on Monday, Nov. 22. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

Potato Board ‘shocked’ by suspension

P.E.I. Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said the board was “shocked” by the suspension, and that a management plan developed by the CFIA is already in place to prevent the spread of potato wart within the province.

The province’s plan was based on a previous containment plan that was developed with U.S. input.

“If fungus is detected in a field, immediate restrictions are put in place,” Dr. Carolyn Sanford of the Department of Agriculture said.

“No production of potatoes including seed, table or processing potatoes is allowed. No other propagative crops are allowed to be produced in that field,” she explained. “There’s no movement of soil, and cleaning and disinfection is required for all equipment and vehicles prior to leaving the field.”

Donald said the fungus was found in fields already being regulated as part of the plan, so the potatoes were already ineligible to be shipped outside P.E.I.

“Since the discovery of potato wart in P.E.I. in 2000, there has not been a single incident of potato wart in any markets, including the U.S. and the rest of Canada, attributable to Prince Edward Island potatoes.”

A potato is infected with the potato wart fungus, which is spread through the movement of infected seed potatoes and contaminated soil. It poses no threat to human health or food safety, but is known to decrease yield — the number of good potatoes that can be harvested and sold. (CBC)

Millions of kilograms of potatoes may be destroyed

The U.S. National Potato Council welcomed the suspension, saying that the spread of the fungus to American farms could threaten their access to international fresh potato markets and possibly cost the industry more than $225 million in annual sales. 

“The U.S. potato industry appreciates CFIA for acting quickly and recognizing the dire threat to the U.S. and Canadian potato industries should potato wart be spread beyond P.E.I.,” the council’s president Dominic LaJoie said in a media release.

But Donald said the restrictions do not represent the wishes of most U.S. buyers and stakeholders.

“This is solely a politically-based trade disruption that will limit trade in a year when potatoes are already in short supply across North America and globally,” he said, adding the suspension could lead to the destruction of millions of kilograms of fresh potatoes.

The board said potato exports to the U.S. are worth $120 million a year.

Sanford said the highest risk for potato wart spread is planting infected potatoes, and that potatoes used for eating are unlikely to spread the fungus since they’re destined for consumers. 

“It is highly unlikely the potatoes banned will be planted in a field,” she said.



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