Equilibrium & Sustainability

A post-Spudpocalyptic world: Canadian, US officials work to resolve potato problem

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The “Spudpocalyse” could at last be over.

American and Canadian officials are moving to overcome an impasse that has curbed potato trade from Prince Edward Island (PEI) over the past two months, Canada’s agriculture chief told The Hill on Friday.

“To Prince Edward Island, it’s catastrophic,” said Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau. “It is like oranges in Florida, grapes for California. This is their livelihood.”

Bibeau was referring to an ongoing ban on exports of PEI potatoes to the U.S. due to a “potato wart fungus” outbreak that struck the Canadian maritime province in the fall. The minister said she met with her American counterpart, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, on Thursday, to discuss the resumption of table-stock potato trade — primarily to PEI’s biggest potato customer, Puerto Rico, and to the rest of the U.S. down the line. 

“We are very hopeful that we will be able to export to Puerto Rico first within a week or two,” Bibeau said.

The Hill has reached out the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for comment on the issue.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) first implemented an interim suspension of seed-potato shipments from PEI to the U.S. in early November, after detecting the fungus on two separate PEI farms, a statement at the time said.

Toward the end of November, the agency broadened the order to include all fresh potatoes — ones for processing and for consumption, or “table-stock” — after the U.S. raised phytosanitary concerns, or those related to plant health. The expansion also mandated that farm equipment shipped from the island to the U.S. must be disinfected, according to the agency.

The inclusion of table-stock and processing potatoes followed a request from Vilsack, who Bibeau said had been prepared to issue a federal order on the subject.

“We agreed that it was not necessary — you can trust Canadians,” she told The Hill. “So we acknowledged that we were not no longer meeting their requirements.”

At the time, Vilsack commended Canada for taking these steps, adding that the USDA would work with CFIA officials “as they delimit the infestation and trace the sources so that appropriate mitigation measures can be imposed and trade restrictions relaxed.”

Bibeau expressed confidence on Friday that table-stock potatoes could now once again be safety exported to the U.S., as Canadian scientists have developed enhanced phytosanitary measures that would make any risk of disease spread negligible.  

Such strengthened measures include brushing, washing and grating the potatoes, as well as treating them with a sprout inhibitor so that they cannot grow in soil, the minister explained.

“Our Canadian scientists — and normally they speak the same language as American scientists — are very confident that with our phytosanitary measures, table stock potatoes can be exported,” Bibeau said.

“Table-stock potatoes can be exported, or imported, safely,” she continued, saying that the negligible risk applies only to contamination and not to human health.

After the Thursday meeting between Bibeau and Vilsack, Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food said in a statement that Bibeau had provided “clear direction to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to proceed expeditiously with the risk analysis of exporting PEI table-stock potatoes to Puerto Rico and the continental U.S.”

Bibeau told The Hill, “We are confident that if APHIS focuses its analysis and the first step on table-stock, potatoes, they will agree that according to these strengthened phytosanitary measures, they can come the United States in a safe manner, starting with Puerto Rico and then to the mainland.”

About a quarter of all PEI potatoes go to Puerto Rico, which lacks a suitable climate to grow potatoes and therefore would incur even less risk than the continental U.S. by importing the sanitized spuds, Bibeau explained.

About 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s potatoes come from PEI, making up about $18 million to $20 million worth of potatoes annually, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Total potato exports from the Canadian province to the U.S. typically amount to $120 million each year, CBC reported.

Next in line behind Puerto Rico, in terms of PEI potato exports, is Massachusetts.

There, the PEI Potato Board — the trade group that represents potato growers on the island — recently launched a social media campaign called “Stop the Massachusetts Spudpocalypse.” The campaign argues that the state “gets much of its potato supply from Prince Edward Island” and that “Washington is blocking Massachusetts’ supply of potatoes.”

Asked why the resumption of exports to Puerto Rico would likely occur before export to Massachusetts and the rest of the U.S., Bibeau said that the continental U.S. is a major producer and exporter of potatoes — and is still free of potato warts — so further analysis would need to occur.

When export to Puerto Rico does resume, Bibeau reiterated that this would apply to table-stock potatoes only, as these present “a very negligible risk” following sanitation. Discussions regarding processing and seed potatoes will continue after Canada’s full investigation into the fungus is complete, the minister explained.

“Potatoes from the island are very high quality, and we are taking this potato wart seriously — we are putting the right measures in place, phytosanitary measures in place, to be assured it does not present risk for our partner,” Bibeau said.

“We never want to see good-quality food being wasted,” she added.

—Updated at 4:06 p.m.

Tags Canada Marie-Claude Bibeau Phytosanitary Potato potatoes Staple foods Tom Vilsack

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