I've written several pieces on the potato wart situation on PEI. I'll include 2 that try to give a good sense of what's going on.
In i-politics Nov. 30, 2021
PEI Potato Industry Another Victim of “America First”
Potato wart, a fungus that poses no risk to humans but makes potatoes unmarketable, was found in 2 fields on PEI in early October. It’s a serious pest Canadian plant health officials have successfully managed for more than 2 decades. However on November 21st Canada’s agriculture minister issued an order preventing shipments of all PEI potatoes to the United States, and seed potato shipments to other parts of Canada. The economic toll has been well documented and is staggering, at least $120 Million in lost sales. The emotional toll on an industry that’s struggled through 3 years of drought and difficult harvests will be enormous too. The weather issues can be seen as acts of God, but there are human hands all over this latest catastrophe.
Potato wart is a quarantinable pest and potato industries everywhere have every reason to keep it from becoming established. There were harsh but understandable steps taken when it was first discovered 21 years ago on PEI in a field in New Annan belonging to Cavendish Farms the big french fry maker. PEI could not ship potatoes anywhere. CFIA inspectors quickly took 300,000 soil tests throughout the province and couldn’t find it anywhere else. It still took almost 2 months before fresh potatoes could be shipped again to the U.S., and 9 months before trade in seed potatoes restarted. Millions of pounds of surplus potatoes were destroyed.
These pest issues get resolved when plant health officials gain confidence that their counterparts in the other country have a credible plan to prevent any spread. That’s what the Potato Wart Domestic Long Term Management Plan was designed to do. And it’s been working. Over the last 2 decades 33 fields were identified with the wart and the potatoes quarantined. In fact there has not been one case of potatoes with wart being shipped anywhere. Never a border closure or restrictions on the movement of fresh potatoes. Until now.
The U.S. National Potato Council isn’t shy about it’s role lobbying to promote the interests of American potato growers. “Standing Up For Potatoes on Capital Hill” is the first thing you see on its website. In a news release it boasts that it asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to suspend importation of PEI potatoes to prevent “the dire threat to the U.S. and Canadian potato industries should potato wart be spread beyond PEI.” This quote comes from new NPC president and Maine potato grower Dominic LaJoie.
It’s not surprising that Lajoie and the NPC would ask for this ban. Lajoie knows better than most that PEI and Maine are long time competitors chasing the same markets in the U.S. North East. Anything that can slow down PEI imports is a direct benefit to Maine growers.
What’s disappointing is that Secretary Vilsack and U.S. plant health officials would agree to threaten a U.S.D.A. order to shut the border unless Canada acted first. Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau really had no choice but to comply. A U.S.D.A. order would be much more difficult to manage.
The real fallout for Canada is that CFIA Acting Chief David Bailey had to justify Bibeau’s move by questioning the ability of the wart management plan and his CFIA colleagues to regulate potato wart here. That’s a major setback.
The only “new” information this year was that the 2 discoveries showed higher levels of potato wart. But so what? Whether there was one or a dozen potatoes it’s the fields that are regulated. The 2 farms were already under surveillance from previous cases and the potatoes were destined for the french fry plant. Bottom line: the plan continues to work. It protects potato growers inside and outside of PEI from potato wart.
What’s harder to know are the backroom dealings that convinced Secretary Vilsack to ignore this. Was it to keep Maine Senator Susan Collins happy? She’s a veteran of potato disputes with PEI and a moderate Republican Joe Biden might need in a deadlocked Senate. Collins will be pleased that the closure will enrich Maine potato growers given that drought in major potato growing areas in the Central and Northwest states has led to a shortage in the U.S. Of course the exact opposite will happen in Canada now with surplus potatoes driving down prices. Not a bad 2 weeks work for the National Potato Council.
Once again CFIA is doing large scale soil sampling around the province looking for wart, but torrential rain is making that difficult. Without a quick resolution (highly unlikely) millions of pounds of perfectly good potatoes will eventually have to be destroyed just as food prices are spiking everywhere. The lowly potato is easily forgotten in most Canadian kitchens but it’s the lifeblood of the PEI economy. Trade protectionism and politics are making a very rare and well managed plant health risk an economic disaster for Canada’s smallest province.
In the Island Farmer Jan. 13, 2022
A Tough Start to the New Year for PEI’s Potato Industry
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 U.S.: “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 that it will be the Americans who will decide when there’s been enough evidence that wart is no threat to the U.S. 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 [U.S.] decision-making and we do not control when they have comfort, from a risk tolerance perspective.”
And for those who say that 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 U.S., American plant health officials (APHIS) ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection to refuse entry to all potatoes from PEI. I want to see PEI’s 4 MP’s and Minister Bibeau under the whip too but this export ban won’t end until Washington officials say so.
I know many in the U.S. 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 2 decades. There’s simply no evidence that it hasn’t been effective.
I think U.S. officials have shown bad faith for 2 reasons:
1. In 2020 wart was found unexpectedly in 2 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.
In 2021 wart was found in 2 fields on 2 farms. Both farms had had potato wart before. Both farms were being tightly supervised by CFIA, and the potatoes 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 that 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 U.S. market and with this wart discovery Maine and other U.S. growers saw a chance to keep PEI out. A responsive U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 that 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 5 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 U.S. consumers that they’re paying too much for potatoes and why. Test U.S. 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.