Potato farmers in PEI wondered if their country was throwing them under the bus in November, when the federal government closed potato exports to the US.
That’s normally the industry’s busiest export season – in 2020, a little over $103 million worth of PEI potatoes headed south, with much of that movement taking place just prior to the Christmas season.
But in November, the door to the US slammed shut. In two PEI potato fields, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that a fungal disease called potato wart was found. The disease makes potatoes unmarketable and reduces yield.
The United States Department of Agriculture knows all about it.
“Potato wart is one of the most serious diseases of potatoes in the world,” says the department, on a website entry dedicated specifically to potato wart. “The disease poses no threat to human health [and] it is not known to be present in the United States.”
Understandably, the US wants to keep it that way. Fearing an import ban being imposed against all potatoes (like the ban against all Canadian beef back in the early 2000s, when a lone Alberta beef animal was found to have BSE), the CFIA imposed its own ban on PEI potato exports.
Better to do it ourselves and show the Americans we’re on top of it, according to the thinking at the time.
It turns out the reaction was positive.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service commends the [CFIA] for voluntarily prohibiting export of seed and fresh potatoes from PEI into the United States due to the confirmed presence of…Synchytrium endobioticum, a fungus, the causal agent of potato wart,” said the department.
Since then, the Governments of Canada and Prince Edward Island have spent a lot of time meeting with US officials to explain how the situation is isolated and how officials are on top of it, to try to get the border reopened.
But through it all, potatoes that had been harvested in anticipation of meeting the US import market piled up. Potatoes are comparatively resilient and keep for a while. But inevitably there comes a time that they naturally start to rot.
So the provincial and federal governments have put together what they call the Surplus Potato Management Response, worth about $40 million. On Tuesday, they released details about it,
saying its goal was to direct as many potatoes as possible to processors, packers and food banks, and minimize the amount of surplus potatoes that must be destroyed.
Producers will also receive support – up to 8.5 cents a pound – to help them destroy potatoes that unfortunately can’t be diverted. That equates to about 300 million pounds of potatoes, about 10 per cent of the island’s total production.
“This is a very difficult time for farmers and having to destroy the potatoes we worked so hard to grow is the last thing our farmers want to do,” says John Visser, chair of the PEI Potato Board.
Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, says there’s a collective will to take a “Team Canada approach” and deal with the US on its science-based concerns.
“That’s our best chance for reopening the potato market in the United States as quickly as possible,” she says.
The federal government hasn’t been feeling much love these days. But it deserves a pat on the back for the way it’s handling this situation.