P.E.I. potato industry in limbo as Canada suspends shipments to U.S. following wart discovery
NORTH BAY -- Millions of pounds of potatoes are effectively "not going anywhere" for one Prince Edward Island farmer following a recent decision by the federal government to suspend shipments of all fresh potatoes from the province to the United States.
Like many in the province, Ray Keenan, co-owner of Rollo Bay Holdings Ltd., is trying to understand the rationale behind the suspension, which was made in response to the October discovery by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields.
About 40 per cent of Rollo Bay's crop is destined for the U.S., which equates to roughly 120 million pounds of potatoes.
"The reality is it's going to take all parties to get this resolved, both Canadian and U.S.," Keenan told CTV's Your Morning on Wednesday.
"I do think it's a bit of overkill here the way this has all happened and unwound."
Federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau signed a ministerial order Sunday restricting the movement of seed potatoes from P.E.I. The CFIA also has temporarily suspended trade of fresh potatoes from P.E.I. to the U.S.
Political and industry leaders in the province have heavily criticized the decision, pointing not only to the economic impact of a suspension in trade but also the measures in place currently to manage cases of potato wart, ever since the fungus was first identified in P.E.I. more than 20 years ago.
Ottawa has said if Canada didn't suspend shipments, the U.S. would have.
Potato wart poses no risk to human health but decreases the yield of crops.
'WE DON'T HAVE CLEAR ANSWERS'
Keenan says their American customers extend down the eastern seaboard and out in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
"Our Canadian suppliers are working very well with us at the present time, our customer base is doing all it can for us, our neighbouring provinces are trying to help out the best they can," he said.
At the same time, however, Keenan said this is putting "chaos" into a supply chain that is "very joined at the hip" with the United States.
"So that's a major interruption to the whole industry for sure," he said.
The U.S. market represents an annual value of $120 million, the Prince Edward Island Potato Board said in a recent statement.
The board said since the discovery of potato wart on the island in 2000, there has not been a single incidence in any markets — Canada or the U.S. — tied to P.E.I. potatoes.
The two detections of potato wart in October were also found in fields already under regulation through the CFIA management plan, the board said, meaning those potatoes were already ineligible to be shipped to any market outside of the island, including Canada and the U.S.
"To that point, this is a frustrating part about it, because we don't have clear answers to what's different now from then," Keenan said.
'PUZZLING TO SAY THE LEAST'
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King has taken sharp aim at the federal government for its decision, calling it a "knee-jerk reaction" and "puzzling to say the least" during an interview with CTV Atlantic's Steve Murphy.
He has described the $1.3-billion potato industry in his province as comparable to the auto sector in Ontario, forestry in B.C., and the oil and gas sector in Alberta.
The federal government has highlighted support programs available for P.E.I. potato growers impacted by the suspension, while the provincial government recently announced a $10-million contingency fund.
But with U.S. Thanksgiving this week and Christmas coming next month, and the P.E.I. crop having done well compared to its American counterparts, King told CTV Atlantic no government program will be able to replace the most important industry in the province.
"This isn't canola, these are fresh perishable products, and if they don't move and they aren't eaten they need to be destroyed, and that would be just a horrible, horrible tragic event for such a wonderful, glorious and high quality crop here in P.E.I. this year," King said.
Speaking to CTV's Power Play on Monday, King said the management program, developed with the CFIA and accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works and is accepted science.
"This is the government of Canada who did this, this isn't the United States, the government of Canada did this to island potato farmers and potentially devastate our most important economic industry," he said.