A farmer works a potato field in North Tryon, P.E.I., July 13, 2000. The general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board says growers on the Island need some answers fast in order to reverse an order suspending all shipments of fresh potatoes from the province to the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

P.E.I. potato growers seek answers to resolve trade issue with United States

FREDERICTON — The group representing potato farmers on Prince Edward Island says its members need answers quickly from Ottawa on the decision to suspend all shipments of fresh potatoes from the Island to the United States or the industry will face huge financial losses.

Prince Edward Island Potato Board general manager Greg Donald says farmers were shocked to learn this week that Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau had ordered the trade restriction after the recent discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields.

“This isn’t a new issue for us,” Donald said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s something we’ve been managing for 20 years. The plan we have is one that has been formally accepted by the U.S.”

The fungal parasite spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment. It poses no threat to human health but can greatly decrease the yield of potato crops and can leave potatoes disfigured.

Donald said rules created by the federal government have prevented any spread from the province to the U.S.

“The two detections this year were in fields already under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s watch because of their association with past detections,” he said, adding that when the fungus is found, inspectors go back 10 years to identify neighbouring fields or those that have shared equipment.

“The potatoes weren’t even going to leave the Island,” he said. “When it was found, they were quarantined. We were concerned, but given the plan, we didn’t think there would be any issues.”

Bibeau told reporters Monday the United States hadn’t left Canada with much choice. “They made it clear that the U.S. would have imposed a federal order banning import of all fresh P.E.I. potatoes if Canada did not act first to suspend trade,” the minister said.

Donald said he wanted to know what had changed to lead to the pressure from the Americans. The export restriction, he said, is a politically based trade disruption. “The minister says she has full confidence in the science. If she says that, and we certainly believe that, then what else can it be?”

He noted that the same controls on P.E.I. potatoes going to the United States apply to Idaho potatoes shipped into Canada. “If those provisions are being questioned for fresh potatoes going to the U.S., why are they adequate for those potatoes coming to Canada from Idaho?” he asked.

In Ottawa, Opposition Conservatives said the Liberal government should provide more information to P.E.I. potato farmers. In a statement Tuesday, they called on the federal government to release a plan to support the affected farmers and provide a date for when the ban will be lifted.

In the House of Commons Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said if Canada had left it to the Americans to impose a ban, the ban would have been more difficult to have reversed.

“We are going to continue to stand up for Prince Edward Islanders and look for a solution on this, based on science,” Trudeau said.

In the United States, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement Monday commending Canada for imposing measures he said were necessary to protect U.S. potato producers.

“We look forward to working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as they delimit the infestation and trace the sources so that appropriate mitigation measures can be imposed and trade restrictions relaxed,” he wrote.

Premier Dennis King said Wednesday the province has formed a “situation table” made up of representatives from government and industry as well as former Liberal MP Wayne Easter to ensure support for growers. “I am reaching out to as many of our partners as I can to reiterate the high value and priority we put on the quality and safety of our potatoes,” he said in a statement.

Donald said P.E.I. normally ships about $2 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. each week, adding that unless a resolution can be found quickly, losses will rise and good potatoes will be destroyed.