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In October, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the export of seed potatoes to the U.S. after the produce was found to have a fungus that causes potato wart disease.ANDREW VAUGHAN/CP

PEI farmers are calling on the federal government to explain Monday’s decision to ban the export of fresh potatoes to the United States, saying the suspension came as a shock and could cost the province millions in lost revenue.

“It’s going to be devastation,” said Greg Donald, general manager of the PEI Potato Board. “The ripple effect is incomprehensible. I think this would be criminal if it wasn’t reversed.”

In October, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the export of seed potatoes to the U.S. after the produce was found to have a fungus that causes potato wart disease.

But on Monday the agency caught the industry off guard when it announced it was expanding the ban to include fresh potatoes. The ban does not include processed potatoes, or limit exports to other provinces or countries.

The U.S. market accounts for annual revenue of $120-million, according to the potato board.

On Monday, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said that the U.S. government had warned it would ban fresh PEI potato imports unless Canada acted first. If Canada had not imposed a suspension itself, she said, the ban would have been more difficult to reverse.

But according to the PEI Potato Board, the seed potatoes found to have warts were already ineligible to be shipped to any market outside of PEI, and fresh potatoes pose only a negligible risk of transmitting the fungus. In a news release, the organization said it was “shocked” by the announcement, calling for an immediate reversal of the suspension.

The board said there has not been a single incidence of potato wart in any markets, including the U.S. and the rest of Canada, attributable to PEI since the wart was first discovered in that province in 2000, which it credits to its Potato Wart Domestic Long Term Management Plan.

“We don’t understand. The minister said she believed in the science, and yet, she went ahead and did this. So it was very obvious to us that was political,” Mr. Donald said, suggesting that the U.S. calls for a ban could have been motivated by a desire to reduce competition for their own produce.

But Bill Zylmans, chair of the Canadian Potato Council, an umbrella group for provincial potato grower associations, said the decision is a good opportunity to confirm the science and restore trust with the United States.

“We need a bit of a breather to analyze everything that’s working and what possibly needs to be tweaked to rebuild the confidence from our trading partners,” he said. “Let’s take a step back, then sit down with the angst and temperature a little lower to redevelop the confidence that we once had.”

According to Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, farmers might need financial support if the suspensions are not lifted quickly.

“I think if the federal government is going to limit trade, there would have to be some discussion on compensation,” Mr. MacIsaac said.

He acknowledged that the situation was rapidly changing, as the news was only announced on Monday, so there “hasn’t been enough time yet to really get into those details.”

PEI’s potato industry is worth more than $1.3-billion a year and employs 8 per cent of the island’s work force, according to the PEI Potato Board. The province produces one-quarter of Canada’s potatoes.

In a news conference on Monday, PEI Premier Dennis King called on the government to reverse the suspension or provide additional financial assistance should it continue. He said his government would provide a $10-million contingency fund to support the industry, but recognized that this would be a small percentage of what could be lost.

Despite the PEI Potato Board’s claim there was a very low risk of spreading the fungus, the discovery of the wart last month prompted the U.S. National Potato Council and 13 state organizations to call for the ban on PEI potato imports, according to chief executive officer Kam Quarles.

The U.S. council said in a news release that its domestic industry stands to lose $225-million in annual sales should the wart be transmitted across the border, as the industry would lose access to all international fresh potato markets.

“We sympathize with the growers in PEI,” Mr. Quarles said. “Economically it’s not a good situation for either the U.S. or for PEI. But unfortunately, the threat of the disease spreading further vastly overwhelms those sales.”

Mr. Quarles said that, before lifting the suspension, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency could have to conduct evaluations of where the warts were coming from, including inspecting fields, tracing the movement of crops, and conducting an analysis of how big the outbreak is.”

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