The CFIA placed two fields under a Notice of Prohibition in 2007
By Diego Flammini
Alberta’s potato industry has received an important designation.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) declared the province free of potato cyst nematode (PCN) after more than 10 years of testing and surveillance.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Deb Hart, special projects coordinator with Potato Growers of Alberta, told Farms.com.
The CFIA tested fields in 2020 and all the tests came back negative.
The nematodes do not pose a risk to human health but are difficult to eradicate because they can lay dormant in the soil for decades.
Alberta’s situation with PCN began in 2007.
In October of that year, two soil samples tested positive for PCN. These results led to the CFIA placing the farms under a “Notice of Prohibition or Restriction of An Activity.”
Under this ruling, the CFIA required the two affected farms, Northbank Potato Farms Ltd. and Haarsma Farms Ltd., both near Edmonton, to destroy their seed potato crops. Production and sales were prohibited, and restrictions were placed on their farm equipment.
These positive tests also resulted in the U.S. and Mexico closing their respective borders to all Alberta seed potato exports.
The trade issues cost potato farmers around $35 million that year. And in some cases, it cost farmers their livelihoods.
“We lost a lot of sales and we actually lost a lot of growers,” Hart said. “It was a very stressful time for the industry overall.”
The U.S. and Mexico did reopen borders to Alberta seed potato exports in 2009.
A bilateral agreement between Canada and the U.S. meant all shipments of seed potatoes from either side of the border had to be tested for PCN. But shipments from the affected Alberta farms had to undergo stricter testing, Hart said.
This PCN-free designation will help Alberta do more business with countries looking for seed potatoes.
The industry has already been receiving communication from potential partners, Hart said.
“Countries are interested and CFIA has done a lot of work to ensure them that there’s no threat of PCN being exported in a shipment,” Hart said. “We’re hoping this will open up more opportunities, especially from Asian countries.”
Alberta’s ag minister is also pleased with the PCN development and its potential for trade.
“Potatoes are a billion-dollar industry in Alberta,” Devin Dreeshen said in an April 7 statement. “This announcement will help us reclaim market access and will lead to fewer restrictions as we pursue new markets.”
The PCN situation did have some controversy along the way.
Representatives from the two affected farms alleged the 2007 test results were false positives because the CFIA couldn’t replicate test findings.
“Once you’ve got (the nematodes), they’re there,” Ernie Van Boom, co-owner of Northbank Potato Farm, told CBC in March 2020. “You don’t have them and then they’re gone. There were never nematodes in there.”
Van Boom and others wanted to bring a case to the Supreme Court but the court refused to hear the case.
The federal and provincial governments created a $16 million compensation program to help farmers recover losses.
In total, 39 farmers including those affected, received compensation.