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The Boston Globe

Canada sees trade barrier in US move to contain fungus outbreak

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

MONTREAL - A few warts on a few potatoes in a small corner of a single field on Prince Edward Island are spawning an ugly trade row between Canada and the United States.

As tempers rise on both sides of the border, island farmers are urging Ottawa to impose retaliatory bans on American agricultural products, a move that could ignite a major trade war. Meanwhile, Canada is already invoking the North American Free Trade Agreement to save island spuds, a sure sign that the situation has already escalated beyond a minor regulatory spat.

The charges and countercharges are flying faster than potato skins in a peeling plant, but the controversy boils down to this: The United States has imposed an import ban on all island potatoes following the discovery last October that a portion of a field in the tiny province is infected with potato-wart fungus.

On Canada's famed "Spud Isle," where the tasty tuber is king of the economy, the dispute is already being called the "potato war," and threatens to deal a savage blow to farmers. Prince Edward Island normally exports 250 million pounds of potatoes to the United States each year, but now $24 million worth of seed and table potatoes are shriveling in storage barns, losing value by the day.

"God knows islanders are more fearful of this fungus than anyone else - potatoes are everything to us, a livelihood and way of life," said Ivan Noonan, manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board. "But we've taken extreme measures, carried out thousands of tests, and they show that this disease hasn't spread one inch. Our PEI potatoes are safe."

Furious Canadian officials charge that the United States is exploiting a minor outbreak of the fungus as a ploy to protect American potato growers. There is a glut of potatoes on North American markets, and cutting Prince Edward Island from the action would be a huge boon to growers from Presque Isle, Maine, to Walla Walla, Wash.

"This is pure politics on the part of the US, not science," said Lyle Vanclief, Canada's agriculture minister. "The Americans are using this as a [trade] barrier, and playing games with us."

But American potato growers say the highly contagious fungus poses an extraordinary threat. They say Canada should stop whining about free trade and focus on ensuring that the fungus wart doesn't spread.

"Sure we're using politics," said David Lavway, government relations director for the National Potato Council, a US lobbying group. "We're using politics to protect our potatoes from a ruinous fungal disease, not from competition."

Lavway said that the spread of the wart fungus to Maine could ruin an already hard-pressed potato industry, leaving growers unable to ship infected spuds to foreign and domestic markets. Proximity to Prince Edward Island makes the state especially vulnerable, he said.

The wart poses no health risk to humans but renders infected potatoes unmarketable. Said Noonan: "It's not that you can't eat it; it's just that no one in their right mind would want to eat it. It's disgusting-looking."

Fungus spores can be transferred and spread by wind-blown soil. But American growers are most concerned that the disease will be carried across the border by seed stock - potatoes used to plant other fields. Prince Edward Island, with its high-grade yields, is famous around the world as a seed source, shipping to Europe, South America, and Asia as well as to the United States.

The potato wart came as a cruel Halloween surprise for the island. That's the day a picker pulled a hideously disfigured spud from a field near the community of New Annan and squealed, "Ugh, gross!"

The United States responded quickly by banning all potatoes from the 2,185-square-mile island, Canada's smallest province but one of the most prolific potato producers in the world.

Since then, scientists from both countries have carried out 9,777 soil tests in 74 fields and 39 backyard vegetable patches in the vicinity of New Annan, none revealing a trace of the wart outside the single infected acre.

Meanwhile, a chain-link fence has been erected around the site and 24-hour security guards have been posted to ensure that not a single spud or a speck of earth is removed. Every field within a half-mile radius is under quarantine, and every piece of harvesting equipment used on the infected patch has been disinfected.

Last month, the US Department of Agriculture told Canada that it would remove the ban on island potatoes provided that they were washed and shipped only in 50-pound bags that had been hand-inspected. But the first trucks were turned back from the border at Houlton, Maine, with politicians declaring that Canada was trying to sneak in infected spuds - assertions later retracted although the ban remains in place.

"It's unreasonable, unjustifiable, and a galling case of our usually good neighbor trying to dicate to us," Noonan said. "There is no danger to the US."

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 1/6/2001. c Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.: