"It's what's not said that matters"

Please read the following article written by Ian Petrie in which he raises some important points regarding the current situation with PEI potatoes:

"It's what's not said that matters"

By Ian Petrie

Perhaps the most difficult part in Washington determining whether to end the ban on PEI fresh potatoes going to the U.S. mainland was finding an explanation for the decision. How could potatoes that are brushed, washed, and sprayed with sprout inhibitor be no threat to spread potato wart now, when they apparently were back in November.

Let me help: “We now realize there was an overabundance of caution in the fall, but boy it was great to ensure that Maine potato growers had a good year.” There. Done.

I realize none of this will be said or written. In fact I can’t remember an issue where people on both sides of the border have so carefully avoided saying what they know or think. It’s understandable on PEI. The stakes are enormous as unknown people in plant health bureaucracies and politicians’ offices in Washington and Ottawa determine how much financial and psychological pain PEI potato growers will have to endure. Best not to antagonize any of them.

We also know that U.S. potato interests are closely monitoring how this issue is being reported in Canada and weaponizing any comments that show a lack of faith in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. Even the fact that PEI seed potatoes can’t be shipped out of the province is held up as evidence that Canadian potato growers don’t trust PEI potatoes either. In fact it’s the Americans who have said that if PEI seed is sold inter-provincially they will ban seed potato imports from these provinces as well.

There has also been extreme caution by CFIA, provincial agriculture officials (citing privacy rules), and potato farmers to not publicly utter the words Cavendish Farms, or Irving. “The processor” has become the go-to language. Again it’s understandable. Cavendish Farms casts a huge shadow over the industry and even more so now that seed and table markets could well be restricted again next fall.

The National Farmers Union has come as close as anyone to seeking some responsibility from “the processor” but more to question why potato industry officials 20 years ago didn’t insist that wart positive fields farmed by Cavendish and later others be permanently taken out of production. Given what happened last fall it’s very likely to happen now.

The role of CFIA has been another challenge for farmers and others to speak about publicly. Off the record many mention the disconnect in Zoom meetings between scientists and regulators in Ottawa with guaranteed pay checks and pensions speaking to farmers reeling from lost income and unsure about the future. “I understand how hard this is” unfortunately rings hollow.

I’ve been cutting CFIA folks some slack. Their professional status and benefits are hardly their fault and in the end it’s their hard-nosed sticking to the rules and regulations that will resolve this issue. They just can’t be offering false hope or seen as favouring the home team.

Tough talking trade negotiators are needed to present Canada’s position. Growers in U.S. states with their own quarantinable pests need to feel the same threat to their livelihoods.

I think Federal Minister Bibeau has made the most interesting shift in what she’s saying publicly, and getting much closer to speaking her mind. Back in November she took on the dirty job of cutting off Canadian export permits to keep PEI potatoes out of the U.S. following a phone call from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Bibeau knew it would be a hard sell on PEI so presented the two wart discoveries from October as a worrying increase in the risk of potato wart spreading from PEI. This despite the fact that they were not unexpected, in two fields be being monitored by CFIA, and potatoes not going anywhere but the french fry plant.

However three months later she told a Washington Post reporter something different: Bibeau said their hands were tied because Vilsack had threatened to ban Prince Edward Island potatoes if Canada didn’t take immediate action. She said such an order would be challenging to overturn. “It was not voluntary from our side,” the minister said. “We had no other choice.”

And this feeds into other public statements by others that are false, that Bibeau is the architect of this export ban and can solve it on her own. Unfortunately the truth is the fix must come from Secretary Vilsack in Washington.

There are some hard truths in all of this that no one can deny. The despair and uncertainty that PEI potato growers are feeling is very real. I’ve never seen anything like it. Compensation is still to be determined but farmers have watched a significant portion of what would have been the most profitable crop in their lifetime chewed up by snow blowers. The status of PEI potatoes going to the U.S. this season won’t be known until thousands of soil samples have been completed later this fall at the earliest and U.S. plant health regulators have seen the results. Planting decisions will have to be made knowing production costs have never been higher.

And that’s not all. There’s both risk and opportunity coming out of the horrific destructive madness in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are the 3rd and 4th largest producers of potatoes in the world, higher than the U.S. and Canada. The lives of Ukrainian farmers are totally disrupted now and no one knows when or if planting can began. The country’s wheat production is especially important. As well, Ukraine and Russia are major producers of fertilizer. Uncertainty and risk rule the day for everyone.

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