Alta. closes book on potato cyst nematodes

Province declared officially free of pest 14 years after discovery of ‘alleged problem’ disrupted billion dollar industry

Alberta has finally been declared free of potato cyst nematodes 14 years after the pest was first suspected in two fields, disrupting its seed potato industry.

The announcement will ease the efforts of producers to expand their markets to other countries, said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA) in Taber.

“There was a lot of trade that was lost,” he said. “Some of those markets have never been regained. We’re slowly working our way back up to those levels, but we’re not near there yet.”

The announcement was recently made by provincial Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen.

“Potatoes are a billion-dollar industry in Alberta,” he said in a provincial statement. “The announcement will help us reclaim market access and will lead to fewer restrictions as we pursue new markets.”

Alberta exports most of the seed potatoes produced in Canada, said the statement.

The province’s cooler northern climate, including its shorter growing season and relatively harsher winters, helps eliminate pests and lowers the need for things such as pesticides, said Dmytro Yevtushenko, research chair in potato science at the University of Lethbridge.

As many as four out of every five multicellular organisms on Earth are estimated to be nematodes, which are invertebrate roundworms.

Most are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, said Yevtushenko. Although nematodes in general are largely beneficial and are a normal part of healthy soils, things such as potato cyst nematodes, which are not native to Alberta, can harm plants, he said.

“What it does is it basically makes Swiss cheese out of the potato,” said Hochstein.

“They burrow into the potato; they create holes in it. It’s a quarantine pest in North America, so if you have a known area in North America that does have the potato cyst nematode, you’re not allowed to ship any product out of those areas.”

Some cysts “were found in a sample from each of two farms out of 2,721 samples taken in Alberta” by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2007, said a book called Plant Parastic Nematodes in Sustainable Agriculture of North America.

The discovery was part of routine testing, causing the agency to place two fields under a notice of prohibition, said the provincial statement.

“With the production of potatoes in these fields halted, years of restrictions and surveillance followed across the province.”

Hochstein described the suspected presence of the potato cyst nematodes as an “alleged problem,” stating no one was ever able to replicate the samples or had any idea how the situation had first occurred, “but that doesn’t mean that they could remove the suspect status.”

It had a massive impact on seed potato growers in Alberta, especially in 2007 and 2008, he said. “It just about destroyed our entire seed industry. We weren’t allowed to export seed into the U.S., which is our biggest trading partner.”

Exports to that market resumed for most farmers in January 2009, although the issue has continued to affect access to international markets such as Asia, said the provincial statement.

About 45 out of the 150 members of the PGA consist of potato seed producers, said Hochstein. Most are in the central part of the province from Lacombe to north of Edmonton, giving them a relative isolation that helps keep their operations free of diseases, he said.

Alberta’s competitors often grow seed potatoes in the same area as regular commercial potato production, which is why the province “has such a great reputation… and the seed industry has worked very hard to keep it isolated.”

The declaration that Alberta is officially free of potato cyst nematodes was the result of efforts by the PGA, the provincial government and CFIA, along with funding by the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).

More than $200,000 was provided to help restore Alberta’s disease-free status, with CAP helping pay for farm inputs such as seed for testing, said the provincial statement.

Thirty-nine farmers, including the two with suspected potato cyst nematodes, also received $16 million in federal-provincial assistance to get seed potatoes back in the ground, it said.

“More than a decade later, the CFIA has now removed the restrictions after the 2020 tests all came back negative.”

Hochstein said several countries had previously expressed an interest in doing business with Alberta producers. “We’ve had some talks with Thailand over the years, Indonesia, Taiwan,” he said.

“We’re just going to go back to their governments now, their ag industry, and say, ‘OK… are you interested in resuming talks?’”

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