Should Farmed Seafood Be Labeled ‘USDA Organic’?

A new report claims seafood farming and proposed USDA standards don’t mix.

Silver bream in an organic fish farm. (Photo: Boris Horvat/Getty Images)

Oct 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

You can find signs of the increasing availability of organic food across the entire grocery store—from the organic beef at the butcher counter to the organic apples in the produce section. Still, the booming sector, which has climbed from around $20 billion in sales in 2008 to an estimated $35 billion this year, has yet to touch every aisle. Consumers looking for certified organic seafood, for example, are perpetually disappointed—because it doesn’t exist. The United States Department of Agriculture hasn’t established the standards for domestic seafood raised organically.

That could change as early as next year, when the USDA’s National Organic Program is expected to finalize an organic standard for seafood. Some advocacy groups, however, believe that while an organic label for fish is absolutely necessary, it should not apply to seafood raised in ocean-based farms. That’s the gist of a 44-page report released last week by the Center for Food SafetyLike Water and Oil: Ocean-Based Fish Farming and Organic Don’t Mix—which asserts that aquaculture endangers both the environment and human health.

“Organic in the U.S. gets its brand and value from integrity,” says Dr. Lisa Bunin, organic policy director at the CFS and the report’s coauthor. “That’s what consumers want—the gold standard of the United States organic seal. We don’t want products that use less rigorous standards in the U.S. That, in our view, tarnishes the value of organic.”

Americans eat more fish than any other nation on Earth—nearly 16 pounds of seafood per person annually. Farmed seafood has boomed in the last decade, countering the decline of wild fish stocks that have been depleted by overfishing and the effects of climate change.

But Bunin says that because ocean-based aquaculture exists within a vast ecological system and cannot be contained the same way, say, as an organic tomato farm can, it can never meet U.S. organic standards. Seawater flows in and out of these farms, and Bunin suggests fish farmers are not monitoring any contamination coming into the system from the larger ocean. Similarly, waste, feces, and unused food flow out of the fish farms, “altering the aquatic ecology, changing [wild] fish’s behavior, and changing the food that [wild] fish eat,” she says. Furthermore, migratory fish, such as salmon, cannot be farmed organically, the report asserts, because “their confinement in fish farms would curtail their need to swim far distances, causing stress” and undermining the organic principles of animal welfare. The report also documents international instances of fish escaping from farming systems, a problem Bunin and others say results in the spread of parasites from farmed salmon to wild stocks and changes in the wild salmon gene pools.

But concerns about inbreeding from escaped fish is not based in science, according to George Lockwood, the USDA-appointed chair of the aquaculture working group, which has advised the National Organic Standards Board and the NOP on the development of organic aquaculture since 2005. He says no study has shown that escaped salmon—the largest category of farmed fish—mate with wild fish or otherwise affect the wild population. He adds that the number of fish escapes from ocean-based farming operations has decreased over the years, and CFS’s own escape tallies appear to bear that out, showing a drop from a 10-year high in 2007 of 2.6 million escapes worldwide to just shy of 400,000 escapes in 2013.

The aquaculture industry has improved in other areas too. Addressing parasite problems with “cleaner fish,” reducing farmed salmon’s reliance on forage fish as feed, and finding solutions for preventing escapes has improved salmon farming’s poor environmental reputation with advocacy groups. Any environmental harm an ocean-based aquaculture operation causes is mitigated in the proposed standards by annual inspections more rigorous and frequent than those of organic facilities on land, Lockwood says.

“If there are any significant environmental changes, they must be dealt with,” he says. “One of the penalties would be that you lose certification.”

But according to Bunin, problems still exist, and the potential for any cross-contamination from ocean-based fish farms or other adverse environmental impacts by definition undermines the “high bar of the certified organic.” (Inland aquaculture facilities, with their ability to more closely control the quality of seafood and lack of an impact on oceans, are not included in the CFFS report.)

Fifty-three organizations have endorsed the aquaculture report—including the Organic Consumers Union and Seafood Producers Cooperative—in an attempt to influence the National Organic Standards Board ahead of its finalization of the organic seafood standards as early as next year.

“We want them to take [aquaculture] off the table,” Bunin says. “We believe we make a scientifically rigorous, compelling case, which has not been made the other way.”