PEI·Video

P.E.I. farmers give away potatoes in Ottawa to raise awareness about trade ban

Island farmers were in Ottawa Wednesday giving away free bags of potatoes to raise awareness of the ban on fresh potato exports to the U.S.

Lively exchange in Parliament over what Conservatives call 'half-baked' export ban to U.S.

Premier Dennis King met with federal officials Wednesday to discuss the issue, then joined the P.E.I. Potato Board's mascot, Tate, to help give away bags of potatoes. (Mathieu Theriault/CBC)

Prince Edward Island farmers were in Ottawa Wednesday giving away free bags of potatoes to raise awareness of the ban on fresh potato exports to the U.S.

A tractor-trailer full of P.E.I. potatoes was parked on Parliament Hill as people in Ottawa were able to get one of 6,000 free bags of spuds from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET. The giveaway was organized in part by the P.E.I. Potato Board. 

"It's our biggest economic generator, and when the potato industry hurts in Prince Edward Island, everybody hurts," Premier Dennis King said.

"We want to come up, keep it top of mind up here in Ottawa and demonstrate again to our politicians in Ottawa just how important this is."

It's been more than two weeks since the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it was suspending fresh potato trade to the U.S. following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields.

'A flicker of hope' in potato export talks in Ottawa, says P.E.I. premier

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Premier Dennis King tells CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin about the latest efforts to restore P.E.I. potato exports to the U.S.

Last week, the CFIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a meeting to discuss the issue. But the province said the border shouldn't have been closed to begin with, as the Island has had a management plan in place to control the fungus since it was first discovered on P.E.I.

"As far as we're concerned, we're 100 per cent confident with our potatoes, with the plan that's been in place for 20 years to manage the issue and we don't understand why this disruption right now," said Greg Donald, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

"We'd like have the folks come together, have the appropriate discussions, whatever needs to be resolved. But as soon as we can to get things moving."

The decision of the federal government to suspend shipments of all fresh potatoes from P.E.I. to the U.S. must be immediately reversed.— Sen. Brian Francis

The board has previously said the ban could lead to millions of kilograms of potatoes being destroyed, and that it's already too late for producers to recoup lost sales.

The premier said giving the potatoes away is the only alternative while they can't be sold. He said the province even offered to give potatoes to every food bank in the U.S. northeast, should they want them.

"We have this amazing crop of high-quality potatoes that we won't be able to sell to our biggest market, and our options are we can donate them to people, we can give them to people at food banks that really need them," King said. 

"Because potatoes are a perishable product, the only other alternative is to destroy them. So just a decent human being who wants to do the best we can, we're trying to give as many potatoes and we're buying from the farmers as a way to keep some money flowing to their pockets."

All options on the table

King was at the event following a meeting on the issue Wednesday morning with Trade Minister Mary Ng, P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and her provincial counterpart, Bloyce Thompson.

Bibeau said the meeting was productive, and that Canada is looking at every option on the table to solve the issue.

"We definitely have to pursue the scientific discussion with the U.S. and we're doing so," she said. "Our objective is to reassure them as quickly as possible, because our fresh potatoes are definitely safe for everyone."

King said he also met with U.S. Ambassador David Cohen, and that the ambassador said the province was making a "compelling case" to get the borders reopen.

"We feel like we're making a little bit of progress, but unfortunately nothing that we're doing can get this open today, which is what we need."

P.E.I. Sen. Brian Francis and Ontario Sen. Robert Black also stopped by the truck to show their support.

"The decision of the federal government to suspend shipments of all fresh potatoes from P.E.I. to the U.S. must be immediately reversed," Francis later wrote on Twitter.

'Half-baked' ban

Foothills, Alta., Conservative MP John Barlow brought up the P.E.I. potato ban in question period Wednesday, leading to a lively exchange with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"Hundreds of jobs have been lost and dozens of family farms are at risk," Barlow said, calling on Trudeau to rescind the "half-baked" ban.

Trudeau responded with the line he and Bibeau have been repeating since the CFIA imposed the ban: the U.S. was about to impose its own embargo of fresh P.E.I. potatoes, which would have been much more difficult to reverse. He reminded MPs he'd brought up the ban with U.S. President Joe Biden, and accused the Conservatives of throwing mud without knowing the issue. 

Any of the 4.5 kilogram (10 pound) bags of potatoes that remain at day's end will be given to food banks, Premier King said. 

With files from Mathieu Theriault and Chris Rands

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