New legislation making its way through the House of Assembly could result in significant changes to how people in the Virgin Islands grow, catch, raise, import, export and sell food.
On March 10, House members ended their sitting in closed-door committee debating the VI Food Security and Sustainability Act, 2022.
The 143-page bill covers a broad range of topics, including agriculture practices, fishing regulations, environmental protections, slaughtering, import/export regulations, loose livestock and even stray pets.
Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley — who is also the minister of education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture — noted this is the first bill he is piloting through the legislative process.
“I anticipate that this bill will further help us go green by revolutionising the food production industry,” Dr. Wheatley said.
Some of the current laws that formed the foundation for the proposed bill are more than 100 years old and in dire need of an update, Dr. Wheatley said when he announced the bill in July 2020.
He added that background research from as far back as 2017 helped with the proposed legislative update.
The bill seeks to replace laws including the Animals Importation and Diseases Ordinance Chapter 88; the Plant Protection Ordinance Chapter 93; the Protection of Animals Act Chapter 94; the Fisheries Act No. 4 of 1997; the Slaughterhouses Act No. 8 of 2001; the Dogs Prevention of Injury to Persons, Livestock and Poultry Act No. 14 of 2001; the Pounds and Livestock Brands Act No. 19 of 2004 and others, according to the deputy premier.
Dr. Wheatley noted that many experts in policy, fishing and farming have been consulted since the bill’s first reading, generating helpful input to be debated in committee.
“It has taken us a while to get to this stage. At some points, I got frustrated with the length of time it was taking. But one thing I can say for sure is we were extremely thorough with this legislation,” he said on March 10, especially thanking environmental consultant George de Bert Romilly for his work drafting the legislation, and staff from the ECYFA Ministry and the Attorney General’s Chambers for helping distil it into one bill.
House Speaker Neville Smith said that in committee members would have to pay special attention to fishing regulations, especially when it comes to issues like regulating fishers who would like to fish on different vessels with one licence; addressing spear fishing; and reducing the number of “ghost traps” left to decay and fatally trap marine life.
Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of supporting VI food production.
“We also have to look at the new technologies that are out there for farming as well as fishing,” Ms. Flax-Charles said, describing potential techniques to explore like container farming. “It is something that we need to incorporate and introduce to our young farmers.”
She continued, “We have to make sure we police our borders, protect our borders, and in turn protect the livelihood of our sports fishermen and women, as well as our traditional fishermen.”
Natural Resources, Labour, and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley agreed, adding that the VI needs to conduct comprehensive assessments of fishing stocks to understand how best to protect them and ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.
The bill would also create the VI Agriculture and Fisheries Authority, a statutory body responsible for taking stock of lobster, conch, tuna, parrot fish, and other commercial and sport fishery resources at least every five years.
The authority would also be responsible for pushing forward the development of those industries, including land management. The deputy premier noted that most of the authority’s operational funding would come from licensing and fines, but it would need an initial subvention.
Mr. Wheatley commended Dr. Wheatley for bringing forward legislation that is not just a “band-aid” in addressing problems with fishery management.
Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer said based on his personal experience working with his grandparents in raising sheep, he was glad to give his support to the overhaul of farming regulations.
However, he said that he hoped to “reduce some of the bureaucracy” associated with the bill during the committee stage.
Regarding the role of the new authority, he said the body should have more autonomy than the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to help further the development of those industries.
He and Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie de Castro both stressed the importance of teaching about agriculture in classrooms and offering support to residents interested in exploring the industry.
Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone, Opposition Leader Marlon Penn, and Premier Andrew Fahie also voiced their support for the bill.
Mr. Penn said he considered it a necessity for the territory to shift from importing 90 percent of food to less than 50 percent in the coming years.
“Our focus is to ensure that the people who invest in those industries are given every opportunity to survive, to be productive, and to create long-lasting industries that supply and support our territory for decades to come,” he said.
He added that he hoped the new authority would also consider setting species- and season-specific regulations to prevent overfishing.
“I don’t believe the intention of the legislation is to take away traditional things that we’ve done as a people of the territory through a licensing regime and strict registration that have been imposed,” Mr. Penn said. “We have to look at who we are as a people and the cultural aspect of our upbringing. … We have to find that balance.”
Dr. Wheatley wrapped up the debate.
“We have to recognise those persons who by their own grit, their own determination, their own willpower, have been able to keep their farming businesses going,” he said. “But despite that, a lot of our farmers and a lot of our fishermen are getting older. We have to recognise we are at a point where something significant has to be done. That starts with having the proper legislative framework in place.”
While still in committee, the House went into recess without setting a date for when it would reconvene.