P.E.I. premier working to get potato export suspension lifted

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says he will "work around the clock" to get a suspension on the export of potatoes from his province to the United States lifted.

Charlottetown food bank concerned about economic impact

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says he has had dozens of conversations with political leaders, industry officials and farmers about a suspension on the export of potatoes from his province to the United States after the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields last month. (CBC)

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says he will "work around the clock" to get a suspension on the export of potatoes from the province to the United States lifted.

The suspension was ordered on Monday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after the discovery of potatoes infected with potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Canada issued the suspension to prevent the U.S. from taking similar action, which might be more difficult to reverse.

"It's been all hands on deck here for weeks, of course, leading up to this," King said.

King said he's been in talks with potato producers, industry officials, farmers and politicians on both sides of the border since the suspension was announced.

He said other parties in his discussions have been open to hearing how P.E.I.'s potato wart management plant works, and why the province believes it successfully prevents the spread of the fungus outside the Island.

"There seems to be, from all sides of the border, a greater emphasis on the success of the science, which we think puts us in a good spot," he said. "But when you're dealing with international matters such as this, time becomes a challenge and a big worry and largely out of our control, which is very frustrating."

Potato wart reduces yields and disfigures potatoes, making them unmarketable. It is extremely persistent and it can take more than 40 years to fully disappear from the soil.

The fungus is not a threat to human health.

P.E.I. offered to help with inspections

The P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Land said that before the suspension was announced, the province had offered to improve its potato wart management protocols, including by hiring 30 new soil inspectors to work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 

But the CFIA told P.E.I. the inspectors would be best managed under its purview and that it would have to be responsible for the hiring and paying of those inspectors.

King said that it was his understanding the CFIA was now hiring half as many inspectors as P.E.I. initially proposed.

"We didn't want a freeze-up to happen in Prince Edward Island with our soil samples being collected, for example. So we've been working with CFIA to say, 'If you don't have the horsepower to do this, we will help you do that,'" he said.

"Things seem to be rolling pretty well in that regard right now, but obviously, not fast enough to change this decision, which we feel needs to be changed immediately."

The province also said it had offered to make several other changes, including:

  • To take land out of production if potato wart was detected.
  • To start shifting toward wart-resistant potato varieties.
  • To develop a zoning system so that if potato wart is present in one part of the Island, only that area is closed for exports as opposed to the whole province.

Premier said impact already being felt

The P.E.I. Potato Board has estimated the value of the potatoes that are now in market limbo at $120 million. It's about 115 million kilograms, enough for 50 million five-pound bags.

P.E.I. potato farmers had been celebrating the best crop in many years. (Cody MacKay/CBC)

There are further knock-on effects in other industries, such as trucking. During peak season — from October to May — about 160 transport trucks full of potatoes head from P.E.I. to the U.S. every week.

Mike MacDonald, director of the Upper Room Food Bank in Charlottetown, said he's concerned the economic fallout of the trade suspension will lead to more families visiting the food bank.

"I'm sure that's going to impact a number of individuals and potentially impact their employment, so we're certainly thinking that will have an impact on us," he said.

Inflation has already led to an increase in traffic at the food bank, he said, which is seeing 10 per cent more families a month than what were previously considered historic highs.

King said he's already hearing from farmers and businesses all across the supply chain who've said they've been affected by the suspension.

"I think it's starting to be felt already. People have been sent home from their jobs at the potato packing warehouses, for example," he said. "I hate to hear that, particularly this time of year, and we hope it can be resolved quickly."

On Thursday, Cavendish Farms said it had explored processing additional potatoes at two of its processing plants at the request of industry stakeholders so that they could be exported, but that all of the plants' capacity had already been contracted.

Management plan in place

Potato wart, caused by a fungus, is considered a serious threat in the U.S. The fungus disfigures potatoes and reduces yields, but it is not a threat to human health.

Included in King's calls have been Rodger Cuzner, consul general of Canada in Boston, and Lyra Carr, the U.S. consul general.

Potato wart disfigures potatoes, but it is not a threat to human health. (CBC)

King said he shared with them the details of the province's potato safety management plan, which was developed in consultation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture following the first discovery of potato wart on P.E.I. in 2000.

He even said he invited some of P.E.I.'s U.S. partners to come to the Island and see P.E.I.'s management plan first hand.

"We believe once people who might be questioning the wart situation in Prince Edward Island, once they realize what we do and how we do it and how consistently we do it, that will put a lot of calmness into the market place," he said.

King said in a media release Wednesday that the province has also established a "situation table" to address the issue that includes senior government officials, representatives of the potato board and former longtime MP Wayne Easter.

Bibeau has said bringing this issue to a resolution is a top priority for the federal government.

In response to a question in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he raised the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden at a meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, adding that there is no scientific basis for the suspension.

With files from Angela Walker and Kerry Campbell


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