Government officials took to Facebook on Monday evening for the third in a weeklong series of public discussions about the proposed Food Security and Sustainability Act 2022.
During the sessions, leaders touted the proposed act as a carefully crafted law that would revolutionise the farming and fishing sectors in the territory, in part by creating a statutory body to oversee the two industries. But farmers and fishers had mixed reactions.
“My basic premise is that there are some good aspects of this bill which should be respected as a good way forward, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be put into law,” said farmer Aragorn Dick-Read, who added that he was pleased that around 60 farmers attended a Feb. 2 meeting on the bill last week.
While he and others hope to continue to work with government to shape the future of the territory’s agriculture and fisheries industries, more dialogue is needed, he added.
The 95-page bill, which Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced in July 2020, would consolidate several existing laws like the Animals Importation and Disease Ordinance; plant protection legislation; legislation for slaughter-houses; legislation for dogs including the prevention of injury to persons; and the Livestock and Poultry Act.
It is divided into 12 parts, including plant protection, fisheries, pounds and livestock, commercial farms, import and sale of fresh meat, enforcement, and regulations, according to Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Ministry Permanent Secretary Carolyn Stoutt-Igwe, who also sat on Monday’s panel.
Also during the Monday discussion, Agriculture and Fisheries Assistant Secretary Tessa Smith-Claxton explained the purpose of the bill.
“What does this act seek to do? It seeks to establish an effective mechanism to promote food security and sustainability in the territory and to establish the power and functions of the Virgin Islands Agriculture and Fisheries Authority and the Agriculture and Fisheries Management Unit,” Ms. Smith- Claxton said.
Some viewers asked for details about how each of these bodies would function. Farmer Jahnai Caul suggested that the unit should set or recommend regulations, and that the authority should develop a master plan for agricultural lands.
“One of the specific functions of the unit is to develop a master plan for the Paraquita Bay Estate,” he posted on Facebook during the discussion. “We must see and acknowledge that one of the main purposes of the legislation is to empower farmers and fishers through the authority, and so the authority must be the body with the responsibility of developing this master plan for the Paraquita Bay Estate and any other agricultural estate/lands throughout the Virgin Islands, not the unit.”
Panelists responded that they would consider the recommendation.
Optional sales system
Mr. Dick-Read has also questioned a provision in the law that would allow farmers and fishers to sell their goods to the newly established authority.
“There is more demand than supply,” he said. “There is no need for a middleman. The product is being bought right away. Government would buy low and sell high. …The cost of food will increase that way.”
During the Monday session, however, Dr. Wheatley said farmers and fishers can choose to sell their products to the authority under the bill but aren’t required to.
“Regardless of whether you go through this Agriculture and Fisheries Authority or not, you can expect there will be some level of regulation to ensure that the public’s interest is protected and that the public’s health is protected,” he said.
Initial public input
Authorities initially asked for public input on the proposed law in September 2020. Various assessments and recommendations were subsequently taken into consideration while shaping the legislation, according to Ms. Stoutt-Igwe.
The draft bill includes measures designed to secure more human resources, an expanded budget, food safety regulations, hygiene standards, comprehensive marketing and advertising, and more.
“We don’t really have a good handle on our food system and what’s really going on,” she said. “We want to work with farmers and fishers to provide fish meat and produce now being imported in mass into the territory, and in this way reduce the territory’s import bill and facilitate greater food sovereignty.”
A year after the act takes effect, an inventory of historical farm areas, watersheds, soils, and markets for agricultural and fisheries products would be undertaken, according to Ms. Stoutt-Igwe. The plan also calls for a review every five years, she added.
Dr. Wheatley said on Monday that the bill was one of the most thoroughly executed and consulted bills that the administration has worked on.
Asked by a caller about how members of the unit will be appointed, Dr. Wheatley said that current employees at the Agriculture and Fisheries Department will be transferred to the new unit.