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Canadian and U.S. officials to meet Friday to discuss P.E.I. potato ban


FREDERICTON — Officials from Canada and the United States were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the suspension of exports of Prince Edward Island potatoes south of the border — a trade order that is impacting potato prices in both countries.

"The resolution can't happen soon enough," PEI Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said in an interview Friday. "The longer this continues on, it will mean bigger losses — and that doesn't even consider the damage to our reputation."  

Canada last month banned shipments of P.E.I. potatoes to the U.S. after the discovery in October of a fungus called potato wart in two fields in the province. The fungal parasite spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment. It poses no threat to human health but leaves the potatoes disfigured and can greatly decrease the yield of potato crops.   

Had Canada not issued the suspension voluntarily, the U.S. would have imposed its own order, according to federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Donald said millions of dollars are being lost and that the issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible.  

Representatives of the Island's potato farmers met with Canadian government officials Thursday in Ottawa, ahead of Friday's meeting with U.S. officials.

"We really pushed for timelines," Donald said. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, he added, "tells us they are 100 per cent confident with everything our farmers are doing around this disease. We keep asking, 'what is different? What does the U.S. have an issue with?'" 

Potatoes going to the U.S. are washed and sprayed with a sprout inhibitor, he said, adding that there have been no reports of potato wart being spread to any location in that country. Donald said if the science hasn't changed, then it's a trade issue that politicians will have to resolve. 

"We have an oversupply now in Canada, and if this doesn't get resolved within days, that's going to negatively impact prices right across the country," he said. "That will be in the millions and millions of dollars."

Donald said the Island has about 300 million pounds of potatoes that need to go somewhere and that the market in Canada already has sufficient supply. "We already see the opposite on the other side of the border," he added. "Prices have escalated. That would be of benefit for the folk on that side of the border."

Donald said he was a bit optimistic following the meeting Thursday and that the minister and government officials appeared to be in full support. He said he's hoping that a first step could be to resume shipments of potatoes to Puerto Rico, which represents about 25 per cent of the Island's potato exports to the U.S.  

"The product is loaded on containers in P.E.I. It goes from Halifax and never touches the soil in the continental U.S.," Donald said. "They are washed and are spout inhibited and they are in a poly-consumer bag that goes to the grocery stores. There's absolutely no risk."

The U.S. market is worth about $120 million dollars a year to the Island's potato industry.  

Meanwhile, Island potato farmers say they appreciate the support and encouragement they are getting from across the country, including phone calls, emails, letters and even gifts. The PEI Potato Board says it has received more than 17,000 individual messages of encouragement and that many Island businesses are giving away potatoes.  

Northumberland Ferries began distributing 1,000 bags of potatoes Thursday — one bag to every passenger. A furniture store in Charlottetown is providing a 10-pound bag of P.E.I. potatoes with every purchase, and a pizza restaurant in the city is giving away a five-pound bag of potatoes with every purchase of its "Spud Islander" potato pizza.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press