Can A Fish Farm Be Organic? That's Up For Debate | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : News

Can A Fish Farm Be Organic? That's Up For Debate

This year, Americans are expected to buy more than $30 billion worth of organic grains, produce, coffee, wine and meats.

Some producers of farmed fish want the chance to get a cut of those profits, and retailers, who can charge a premium price for organic farmed fish, are with them. But an organic label for aquaculture is not coming easy.

For more than 10 years, the issue has been on the agenda of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. But a planned meeting to discuss the matter in October was canceled by the federal government shutdown. Now federal officials are saying the final determination on the issue is at least six months away.

Among the groups closely eyeing the proceedings are environmentalists, who say fish farms shouldn't quality for an organic label if they rely heavily on feed that can't be verified as organic. And they cite other problems on fish farms, including pollution and disease, that make them less sustainable than the typical organic farm.

"The problem is, organic rules are based on how you treat the soil. So how do you apply that to things like seafood?" says Patty Lovera, with Food and Water Watch.

To solve the problem of fitting fish farms into the same policy as land-based farms, federal regulators are simply rewriting the rules. The NOP — with help from the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB, and its own Aquaculture Working Group — is now developing a set of guidelines that specifically address aquaculture. They would allow up to 25 percent conventionally grown material — specifically fishmeal — in the diets of farmed fish certified as organic. The plan would be to slowly scale this amount down over the years, though critics say they doubt this process would occur.

But this seems like too much to some consumer advocates.

"They're totally compromising the current United States standards [on organic certification]," says Urvashi Rangan, with the watchdog group Consumers Union.

Farmed salmon are typically fed fishmeal, a ground-up paste of anchovies, menhaden and other wild-caught species, some of which come from stocks that are rapidly declining. Under existing organic laws in the U.S., there is no way to certify these wild fish as organic.

To solve this, the federal government is proposing to allow fish farms to use meal only from "sustainable" fish species.

So what exactly does that mean? Miles McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, tells The Salt that for now, the term "sustainable" remians undefined and unregulated.

The fishmeal question is likely to continue to be contentious for open-ocean fish farms. But inland fish farms could potentially be in a better position to abide by organic laws, says Zeke Grader, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco. "I think it's possible for there to be organically farmed fish, but they would have to be raised in completely closed, recirculating systems that don't touch the ocean," Grader says.

That's because some salmon farms with open-ocean pens have been infested with a marine parasite called sea lice, which scientists say has devastated certain wild salmon populations in British Columbia. (Representatives of Canada's salmon farming industry have disputed this claim.)

George Lockwood, chairman of the NOP Aquaculture Working Group, says the sea lice issue "is an unsubstantiated claim" against salmon farming.

Still, Lockwood says his group has recommended to federal regulators that organic salmon farms be required to undergo rigid environmental assessment to earn the USDA organic stamp — a more rigid assessment, he says, than the current standards for organic land-based livestock farms. Lockwood also points out that the European Union is already certifying some farmed salmon from countries like Ireland as organic.

Rangan at Consumers Union sees these moves as watering down the principles of organic agriculture.

"The NOP wants to grow the organic sector, and to do that they're just lowering the standards rather than require that producers meet them."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Picasso, Nazis And A Daring Escape In 'My Grandfather's Gallery'

As a little girl, Anne Sinclair knew Pablo Picasso. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon about why she didn't want the master to paint her picture, and her new memoir, My Grandfather's Gallery.
NPR

Syrup Induces Pumpkin-Spiced Fever Dreams

Hugh Merwin, an editor at Grub Street, bought a 63-ounce jug of pumpkin spice syrup and put it in just about everything he ate for four days. As he tells NPR's Scott Simon, it did not go well.
NPR

Texas Gubernatorial Candidates Go The Border To Court Voters

Republicans have won every statewide office in Texas for 20 years, but the growing Hispanic population tends to vote Democrat, and the GOP's survival may depend on recruiting Hispanic supporters.
NPR

Tech Week: Smartphone Privacy, Cyberstalking, Alibaba's Big Debut

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba makes the biggest debut on the NYSE ever. The details, and the other tech stories that piqued our interest, are in this week's roundup.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.