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The PEI Potato Industry

It is good to see some farmers and the media starting to ask questions as to the real cause of the potato virus issue. When will our politicians start asking the real question which is - who is responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves today?

If this were to happen, the Provincial Government and other self interest groups within the industry might come to realize their involvement (or lack of appropriate action) and would clearly see the reason why the border was closed to fresh P.E.I. potatoes.

We encourage you to read the two following articles from last week's Eastern Graphic regarding this issue (you can view the op ed by James Rodd through the attached image):


PEI’s Potato Industry By Ian Petrie

The British have a phrase that captures Canada’s position trying to fight an unnecessary, unfair and devastating export ban of PEI fresh potatoes into the US “on the back foot”. The definition: in a position of disadvantage, retreat, or defeat.

It’s been disheartening listening to Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials in legislative committee hearings in Charlottetown and Ottawa say over and over it will be the Americans who will decide when there’s been enough evidence that wart is no threat to the US potato industry. CFIA’s David Bailey said, “It’s very difficult to give a specific sort of critical path of timelines. We do not control their (US) decision-making and we do not control when they have comfort, from a risk tolerance perspective.”

And for those who say it’s Canada’s Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau who can end the border closure consider this. The day after she announced PEI could no longer export to the US, American plant health officials (APHIS) ordered the US Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection to refuse entry to all potatoes from PEI. I want to see PEI’s four MPs and Minister Bibeau under the whip too but this export ban won’t end until Washington officials say so.

I know many in the US industry read Canadian reporting on this issue and have taken offence to what I and others have written, that this isn’t a plant health issue but a protectionist trade war. Of course potato industries everywhere have good reason to keep potato wart from being established, and that’s what the wart management plan has done successfully for two decades. There’s simply no evidence it hasn’t been effective.

I think US officials have shown bad faith for two reasons: 1) In 2020, wart was found unexpectedly in two seed potato lots during a routine certification process. Seed potatoes are the biggest risk to move potato wart to some other jurisdiction. In 2020, the Americans allowed CFIA to follow the protocols in the management plan and there was no restriction on fresh potato movement.

This year wart was found in two fields on two farms. Both farms had had potato wart before. Both farms were being tightly supervised by CFIA, and the potatoes were destined for the french fry plant. The discovery itself was not wholly unexpected and posed absolutely no risk to potato growers inside or outside PEI. And we know what happened.

The biggest difference I see is the drought in 2020 had cut into PEI’s production and quality. This year perfect weather led to the best harvest in history. Currency exchange rates do give PEI a competitive advantage in the US market and, with this wart discovery, Maine and other US growers saw a chance to keep PEI out. A responsive US Department of Agriculture got the job done.

2) The other sign of bad faith is preventing PEI fresh potatoes from being shipped to Puerto Rico, a US protectorate with no commercial potato production. We have to remember that Idaho has a quarantinable pest called potato cyst nematode. It ships fresh potatoes to Japan where PCN is prohibited following the exact same protocols used by PEI. Not good enough say the Americans. Not this year anyway.

Canada learned through the Trump years that playing nice when dealing with arbitrary trade restrictions just doesn’t cut it. I hope potatoes get as much attention as electric cars as Canada makes plans to fight US protectionism with all the political and legal tools at its disposal. Waiting for the results of tens of thousands of soil tests going into 2023 would be throwing PEI to the wolves.

And there’s work to be done on PEI as well. The two fields with wart this year belong to Irving-owned companies including Cavendish Farms. The company insists it’s following all of the CFIA rules and protocols and there’s nothing to indicate that’s not true. However, I believe Cavendish officials must at least acknowledge some of the choices made over the last 20 years and work with the industry now to reduce the risk of wart being discovered again:

1) In 2000 the initial field with wart belonged to Cavendish Farms. The agriculture minister of the day, Mitch Murphy, insisted the field would be planted in trees. That never happened. Instead, and with the understanding of others in the potato industry and the CFIA, Cavendish negotiated a protocol that would allow possible replanting with potatoes after five years. That will change. The 33 fields found with wart over the last 21 years, including those owned by other growers, are almost certain to be planted in trees in the months ahead.

2) Cavendish Farms chose to plant riskier contact fields with Russet Burbank, the best fry potato but very susceptible to potato wart, even though the CFIA continues to suggest that resistant varieties (Goldrush, Prospect) can severely limit, and after several decades, eventually eradicate wart.

And finally the scale of the Irving’s farming operations matters here. CFIA insists there are no new testing requirements from the U.S. now. That means it’s the multiple large farms that share equipment the Irvings own and operate that’s led to extensive levels of tracing and soil testing that the CFIA says could go on until 2023.

Let the CFIA do what it does best on the technical and scientific issues but back it up with some trade and negotiating hardball. Take ads out to inform US consumers that they’re paying too much for potatoes and why. Test US new potatoes in the months ahead for banned pests and diseases. Find some leverage that can threaten American producers too. It’s not nice, but unnecessary protectionist trade wars never are.

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