P.E.I. MLAs ask government to reconsider plan to cut potato disinfection

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on November 12, 2015

Alan McIsaac, minister of agriculture and fisheries, speaks to reporters before appearing at the standing commitee on agriculture in Charlottetown Tuesday. 

©Guardian photo by Brian McInnis

A legislative committee is publically urging the minister of agriculture to reconsider the cancellation of an industry-wide program aimed at protecting P.E.I.’s potato industry from bacterial ring rot.

“I’m concerned you are putting P.E.I.’s reputation at risk,’’ said committee chairman and fellow Liberal MLA Rob Henderson.

“This is our number one commodity and industry.”

The majority of the standing committee on agriculture are Liberal MLAs and most were uncomfortable with the department’s intention to axe a program that could jepordize the $1 billion a year potato industry.

The committee held a session Tuesday afternoon with both Agriculture Minister Alan McIsaac and Deputy Minister John Jamieson.

The government plans to cancel the disinfection program designed to keep bacterial ring rot at bay because of an apparent stalemate with the P.E.I. Potato Board.

The board has declined to pay the lead share in a 60/40 per cent funding arrangemen, something executive director Greg Donald described as an “ultimatum”.

The service costs about $500,000 a year with government picking up $375,000 of the tab and the $10 a truck spray fees raising the other $125,000.

Both McIsaac and Jamieson said about 20,000 trucks are sprayed, but only 800 trucks involved in the seed industry actually require disinfection.

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The officials said bacterial ring rot is considered “functionally eradicated” according to a retired scientist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“We told (the potato board) we have financial restraints and we would pay 40 per cent of the costs,’’ said McIsaac. “They said neither one of our options was acceptable….so what are supposed to do? Say, “oh, that’s okay” we’ll pick up the whole costs. We are trying to be fiscally responsible.”

The majority of the committee also sounded off against the program cancellation at the end of the year that would close the disinfection station in Borden-Carleton and prompt job loss.

“So it’s not worth spending $375,000 to protect an industry worth over a billion dollars?” asked Opposition Leader Jamie Fox, who is also the MLA for Borden-Kinkora.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing from potato farmers across the Island and two federal MPs say this is a bad move.”

Other Liberal MLAs in large potato growing areas like Pat Murphy in Alberton-Roseville also weighed in against the plan along with Conservative MLA Colin Lavie, who represents Souris-Elmira.

“You’re talking about dismantling the entire disinfection infrastructure and we could get caught with our pants down,” said Henderson.

“It does sound to me like an ultimatum and more discussion should be held to find a middle ground?”

There hasn’t been a case of bacterial ring rot in five years, but the committee was filled with questions of “what if?”.

Sources say bacterial ring rot spreads by contact, can’t be killed by frost, and can survive on farm equipment like trucks, tractors and harvesters for years.

It can also enter the province through trucks coming from other potato producing areas.

Outside the committee meeting, Donald, of the P.E.I. Potato Board, said the board is open to all options.

“But to be given an ultimatum is not engaging an attitude of working together,’’ he said.

“We want to keep talking.”

ssharratt@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/GuardianSteve