Paul MacNeill

In the public relations disaster that was Marie-Claude Bibeau’s attempt to explain Canada’s arbitrary shutdown of PEI’s multi-million dollar potato export industry, the Minister of Agriculture repeatedly leaned on the phrase ‘science is not black and white.’

No doubt it was crafted by spin doctors trying to position the Trudeau government’s capitulation to the United States as that of a benefactor doing what’s best for Island farmers. 

Cue patronizing patting of the head and a soft voice cooing ‘we know best.’

Science is not so much black and white, but its interpretation can be. For more than 20 years, Island growers have rigorously followed a management and containment regime agreed to by the United States in the wake of potato wart being found on the Island for the first time in 2000. 

The fungus is not something you can dig out of the ground. Once found it remains in the soil indefinitely. Since 2000, its presence has been detected 33 times. Our response to every incident was guided by science that prioritized containment. The flow of potatoes across the US border, where 80% of our crop is sold, continued. For the record, detection does not mean wart is spreading on PEI. It could be in the soil for decades and only discovered when a soil sample is collected.

The first rumblings of concern were heard in October when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the presence of potato wart on two farms. On November 2nd, seed potato exports were halted, with agreement of the PEI government, in the expectation that science-driven decisions would ensure exports resume by February, when seed potatoes are traditionally sold. 

Several weeks ago the PEI government became aware of increased cross-border bureaucratic chatter that put the free-flow of table stock potatoes in jeopardy. The Trudeau government pushed the King administration to voluntarily stop all exports. PEI refused. The feds offered several potential options, but did not indicate it would throw Island agriculture under the bus by appeasing US concerns and shutting the border itself. 

This is one of Ottawa’s primary talking points proffered by Island MPs and Minister Bibeau. If Canada did not shut the border, they claim, the US would, thus ensuring a more protracted closure. It is a slightly illogical assertion. For starters there is a significant shortage of potatoes in the US because of serious drought in potato growing regions. Would the Biden administration close the border in the run up to Christmas when the country needs spuds from the northeast for millions of holiday dinners? 

Canada’s assertion of an imminent US action was delivered, with a ‘trust us, we know best attitude not supported by any guarantee or fact.

But let’s go back to Bibeau’s ‘science is not black and white’ soundbite. Words matter in diplomacy. CFIA, as an arm’s-length, independent body, is obligated to mitigate and control the spread of potato wart. But what if the verbiage used by CFIA in describing its October discovery unnecessarily elevated concern in Washington?

CFIA described the two positive samples as an ‘outbreak’ and ‘infectious infestation.’ A heat map of Prince Edward Island, distributed by CFIA, could easily lead to the conclusion wart is prevalent in all corners of the province. It’s not. Our industry partners in the US are quietly expressing surprise that October’s detection has escalated to the point of a border closure. 

In a move that contradicts the supposed seriousness of the two cases, CFIA will “allow PEI seed potato farms to operate and grow seed potatoes for use within the province and to maintain the continued movement of table stock and processing potatoes to other provinces.”

Is this the act of a body that believes its own rhetoric? Why would we close the US border but allow potential exposure to Canadian farmers? The answer is because CFIA knows the science is solid and there is no massive new outbreak in PEI. 

There are those who believe CFIA unintentionally stoked US protectionism with language that failed to appropriately recognize the strength of science driven containment protocols in place since 2000. Over the years there have been isolated discoveries; that’s expected with regular, rigid sampling of the Island crop. None escalated into a true outbreak or transference of potato wart to the US. 

The science worked. 

Now the Canadian government has blinked. The best case scenario is a closure of six to eight weeks and it could be much longer. 

For reasons not understood by Island farmers, millions of dollars a week in potato sales are lost. Farm employees are out of work. The trickle-down effect on the Island economy is immense. 

The optimism of a bountiful crop destroyed with a stroke of a Canadian government pen.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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(1) comment

1Reader

Paul, I would check who is the owner of these two fields. From what I have been told, it is not our local Potato farmer, rather a large corporation which is involved in the Frozen Potato business. If this be the case, their sales would not have been hurt, rather they would probably have increased. MP Morrissey also let it out of the bag last week, indicating that Corporate or large processed sales would have ben effected, if Canada had not agreed to this. It is the same two fields owned by the same corporate entity. Who is protecting whom here? Our governments are not protecting the people who are involved in the Islands 120M$ potato industry. Our two governments are the Grinch and the Scrooge that has destroyed our Island Christmas.... They have said : Bah Humbug to Islanders.

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