Federal agriculture minister assures P.E.I. potato exports 'top priority'
‘I really have the feeling that the Americans’ worries are based on science’
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau wants Prince Edward Islanders to know the federal government is working very hard to lift a trade suspension for fresh P.E.I. potatoes to the U.S.
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King is in Washington this week lobbying officials, senators and members of Congress.
Canada suspended the trade of P.E.I. potatoes to the U.S., worth an estimated $120 million, to prevent threatened action from the American side.
The concern is connected to the discovery of potato wart, a serious agricultural pest, in two P.E.I. fields in October. Potato wart disfigures potatoes and makes them unmarketable, but is not a threat to human health.
On Thursday, King questioned why Bibeau had not joined the delegation to Washington.
King expressed frustration that during a meeting with Canada's ambassador to the U.S. he was asked to bring up a trade dispute regarding electric vehicles while talking about potatoes.
"It's time to get rid of this silly BS and let's get to work and get this open," said King.
"If we're really Team Canada, let's act like it's Team Canada."
In an emailed statement, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc rebuked the premier.
We do understand.— Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau
"Islanders would be better served with more respectful and productive behaviour going forward," he wrote.
Bibeau told CBC News Friday that she had not been invited and only learned about the trip incidentally. While King was in Washington, she said she was raising the issue with the American ambassador in Ottawa.
"We do understand how the potato industry is important for farmers and everyone on the Island," Bibeau told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.
"We are working on every front to restore markets and also support farmers."
A question of science
Bibeau said all lobbying efforts are important, but she believes the issue will ultimately be resolved by scientists at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in talks with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I really have the feeling that the Americans' worries are based on science. I think they are being too cautious. It's a matter of tolerance to risk," said Bibeau.
"I can assure you it's a top priority. We have our best scientists, we have our best trade commissioner, on this file and I am personally very, very involved. Besides the B.C. floods right now potato wart is my top priority."
Potato wart was first discovered on P.E.I. in 2000, and trade was halted at that time as well, necessitating the destruction of hundreds of millions of pounds of potatoes.
A plan for controlling potato wart was developed in consultation with the Americans in 2001, and that plan kept the border open for 20 years, until this November.
"Fresh potatoes, they present a very negligible risk of soil contamination. This is what we strongly believe," said Bibeau.
"Our science is sound, that our management practices control and contain the fungus, and this is where it will be solved."
Bibeau said she also understands that financial support for farmers, should potatoes need to be destroyed, is time sensitive, and she is continuing to work on that part of the problem.
The destruction of potatoes would need to happen in the winter, so that cold weather will kill any pathogens.
With files from Island Morning