P.E.I. government axes potato disinfection services

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@journalpioneer.com
Published on November 9, 2015

Potato harvest

Service of some 30 years aimed at bacterial ring rot will stop the end of this year.

SUMMERSIDE – The Prince Edward Island government is cutting funding to provincially-funded potato disinfection service.

The move is expected to impact one full-time job, which is being transferred within the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and several part-time and seasonal positions that will most likely be lost.

The disinfection service has been in place for more than 30 years, spraying potato transport trucks arriving on P.E.I., local machinery and warehouses, for a disease called bacterial ring rot, which can be devastating for potato crops.

The news was shocking to Kinkora-area potato grower Greg McKenna of Country View Farms.

“I personally think it’s a service that’s seriously needed,” said McKenna.

“Just for safety and security. We’ve been fortunate here that we haven’t had bacterial ring rot for quite some time …  but if we have tractor trailers coming in here, and they came from other potato producing areas, and if they’re contaminated with a disease, and they’re not cleaned and disinfected properly – those diseases can come here.”

Agriculture Minister Alan McIsaac is expected to appear before the province’s standing committee on agriculture and fisheries Tuesday to answer questions about the cuts.

Speaking Monday evening, McIsaac said his department has been working since the spring with the P.E.I. Potato Board to come up with a more equal cost sharing agreement to keep the disinfection service open, but they were not able to reach a compromise.  

“We’re the only province in Canada that was doing this for their potato industry and we’re not doing it for any other commodity,” said McIsaac.

“So we were willing to carry on paying part of it, but not all of it to the extent at which we were.”

According to figures provided by the department of agriculture, the disinfection service cost roughly $500,000 annually, most of that coming from taxpayers.

The potato industry also contributed by paying a $10-per-truck-sprayed fee for the service, but that accounted for less than half of the actual costs; it brought in about $127,000 in 2014/2015.

Adding to the department’s decision is the relative rarity of the disease the program is meant to resist. The Canadian Food InspectionAgency reports five cases of bacterial ring rot since 2008 in all of Canada.

The province will continue to provide assistance to farmers who find themselves dealing with an outbreak of disease and has funding available should individual farms want to spray against bacterial ring rot on their own initiative.

However, the move to discontinue the service is not sitting well with McIsaac’s Liberal colleague Rob Henderson, MLA for O’Leary-Inverness.

Henderson’s riding is in one of the heaviest potato producing areas of the province and he said Monday he’s concerned what this cut will mean for his constituents.

“Our number-one industry and commodity is the potato itself, so if contagions or pathogens get spread just because we’re not on top of these things … there are dire ramifications that could be had,” said Henderson.

“I would hope that the government and the minister would revisit this situation and try to come up with a solution that’s workable for all.”

The two men will have a chance to discuss the matter Tuesday as Henderson chairs the standing committee on agriculture.