CBC In Depth
Spud Scare
CBC News Online | August 6, 2004

The U.S. restricted the import of P.E.I. potatoes for about nine months in 2000-01 after a small sample in a single field was discovered to be infected with a disease that until recently had only been found in one other province. The ban cost farmers millions while causing piles of perfectly-good potatoes to go to waste.

The trouble began in late October 2000.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency found potatoes in a field in Prince Edward Island were infected with what's known as "potato canker" or "potato wart," a disease caused by a microscopic soil-borne fungus that causes potatoes to become covered in growths.

The contaminated potatoes were destroyed, but that wasn't the end of the problem.

Within 24 hours the provincial and federal governments, along with the potato industry, formed a task force to deal with the threat of the disease spreading.

The concern was not that it would become a health issue – potato wart poses no threat to human health – but that potato farmers could lose millions of dollars. The green cauliflower-like deformities caused by the disease makes the potatoes worthless.

P.E.I. accounts for about one-third of Canada's potato production.

Potato growers south of the border were quick to recognize the threat, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent up its own inspectors to take soil samples and on Oct. 31, 2000, it placed a ban prohibiting the shipment of P.E.I. potatoes into the U.S.

The ban caused on outcry with P.E.I. potato growers accusing the Americans of using the disease to reduce competition from Canada. The province exports 10 to 20 per cent of its potatoes to the U.S. (About 50 per cent are sold in Canada and the rest in other countries.)

The U.S. said it was simply taking the necessary precautions to prevent the disease from contaminating its crops.

Potato wart spreads by direct contact from infected potatoes or soil. Spores of the single-celled fungus that causes the disease, called Synchytrium endobioticum, are known to live for 40 years or more in undisturbed soil. This explains the plant quarantine that's been in place since 1912 in Newfoundland, the only province in Canada where potato wart had ever been found before October 2000.

By mid-November 2000 tests showed that the disease was limited to the site where it was found, a field in Lower New Annan owned by potato producer Cavendish Farms.

Still, the ban continued.

P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Mitch Murphy and MP Wayne Easter said enough was enough, and it was time the Canadian government retaliated with trade sanctions against the U.S.

Then in mid-December 2000, six weeks after the ban was put in place, the U.S. announced it was partially lifting the ban.

Table potatoes from the province could again be sold in the U.S. but not seed potatoes, which are used for planting. Also, about one-eighth of the province, those farms within 40 hectares of the field where the disease was found, remained under quarantine.

The sight of potatoes being loaded on trucks headed for the U.S. was encouraging, especially considering many producers had been forced to shut down their operations and lay off some of their workers. So far the ban had cost potato farmers millions of dollars in lost sales.

But a week later potato farmers reported their trucks were still being turned away at the border.

The news prompted P.E.I. Premier Pat Binns to call for help from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who said federal officials were already on the case.

Soon after, Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief released a statement calling Washington's delay in lifting the ban "completely unacceptable." Vanclief also promised federal aid to P.E.I. farmers hurt by the ban, which would include cash as well as help in finding alternative markets for their products.

By this time, the ban had cost P.E.I. potato farmers an estimated $22 million in lost sales.

At the end of December 2000, the U.S. again announced it would reopen its borders to P.E.I. potatoes, but this time with new restrictions.

Along with keeping the exclusion zone announced two week earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said all potatoes, even those sold within Canada, must be cleaned to get rid of dirt that could contain spores and treated with a sprout inhibitor. The restrictions also said the potatoes must be shipped in consumer packs of no more than 22.5 kilograms, and clearly labelled "Product of P.E.I." The ban on seed potatoes would also continue.

P.E.I. farmers called the stipulations absurd.

"We will not be dictated by the U.S. of what we do within Canadian borders," said Ivan Noonan, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

Fortunately, the new year brought some good news for the farmers.

The P.E.I. government announced it would pay farmers about 10 cents a kilogram for some of the unsold potatoes, which remain in storage in warehouses. Some would be spread on the ground and allowed to rot while others would be shipped off to food banks across the country.

In April 2001, Vanclief announced a new deal with the U.S. The bag size and labelling restrictions remained, but the Americans dropped the demand that potatoes detained for sale within Canada be cleaned and treated.

It wasn't until August 2001 that most of the restrictions were lifted, in exchange for Canada agreeing that the field where the fungus was found, and all the land within a kilometre, be taken out of production.


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Aug. 1, 2001: Restrictions lifted on P.E.I. potatoes

April 26, 2001: Potato ban lifted by U.S. as farmers approve deal

April 25, 2001: P.E.I. farmers skeptical of new U.S. potato deal

April 11, 2001: Confusion surrounds potato ban

April 10, 2001: U.S. to lift ban on P.E.I. potatoes

Feb. 9, 2001: P.E.I. potatoes go to compost heap

Jan. 30, 2001: Food banks wait for stalled P.E.I. potatoes

Jan. 17, 2001: Trade officials discuss P.E.I. potatoes

Jan. 10, 2001: P.E.I. to buy up potato crop

Dec. 30, 2000: P.E.I. potato producers not happy with U.S. rules

Dec. 28, 2000: U.S. releases rules for P.E.I. potato imports

Dec. 22, 2000: Potato ban decision delayed

Dec. 22, 2000: Ottawa demands U.S. lift ban on P.E.I. potatoes

Dec. 18, 2000: P.E.I. premier angry potatoes turned back at U.S. border

Dec. 14, 2000: P.E.I. spuds can go south again

Dec. 14, 2000: U.S. lifts ban on most P.E.I. potatoes

Dec. 5, 2000: Murphy demands trade retaliation

Nov. 1, 2000: P.E.I. tries to lift U.S. ban on its potatoes

Oct. 31, 2000: P.E.I. potatoes banned in U.S.

Oct. 27, 2000: Task force investigates potato wart

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