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P.E.I. potato farmers take federal government to court as export ban on seed potatoes continues

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Potato farmers on Prince Edward Island are taking the federal government to court due to the decision to restrict the movement of P.E.I. seed potatoes.

In 2021, a ministerial order stopped the transport of the Island's best-known export, table and seed potatoes, to the United States after potato wart was found in a few Island fields.

The shipments of table potatoes resumed in April 2022 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Island farms the all-clear.

However, seed potatoes, which account for about 10 per cent of the Island's annual potato output, are still banned from the United States pending the outcome of a more thorough U.S. Department of Agriculture review. There are also restrictions on their sale to other Canadian provinces.

The fungal parasite -- a disease that disfigures potatoes but poses no threat to human health -- spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment.

The application by the P.E.I. Potato Board is calling on the federal court to strike down decisions made by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the federal minister of agriculture, who ordered the ban in 2021.

Lawyers for P.E.I. potato farmers argued the decisions were beyond the scope of CFIA, did not follow fair process, and was not reasonable given the degree of potato wart found in P.E.I. fields.

They also say the CFIA has damaged the reputation of P.E.I. potatoes by calling the Island "infested" with potato wart.

“Would you want to buy potatoes from an infested place? Probably not. So, the longer that black cloud is hanging over P.E.I., the more damaging it is," said Mark Ledwell, one of the P.E.I. Potato Board’s lawyers.

According to the farmers’ lawyers, only 0.4 per cent of potato fields on the island have confirmed potato wart in the last 20 years since it was first discovered.

Lawyers for CFIA say the word "infected" in this context is a technical description under CFIA and trade regulations.

They also argued it is the mandate of the food agency to protect Canadian agriculture, adding that the United States officials were threatening a blanket ban on Canadian potato imports. They say this created the urgency required to issue the decisions.

According to government lawyers, the U.S. didn’t want P.E.I. potatoes, meaning it was no longer meaningful to continue to issue export certificates.

To date, CFIA has taken 45,000 soil samples from the Island as part of an ongoing investigation.

So far, 35,000 have been tested, with three coming back positive for the disease.

The judge reserved his decision on the matter Thursday, but promised a quick decision in light of the quickly approaching planting season.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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