By: Tiffany Sommadossi

Fish remains the only major food product that is an outsider in the organic labeling movement. As the farmed fish industry tries to join the organic movement, it gets thrown further into the tug-of-war between consumer-driven economics and sustainability. As esoteric as labeling regulations may seem, deciding if a fish farm can be organic should force us to take a harder look at the organic movement in general and the ambiguity of how we understand “sustainability.”

In 2000, the USDA created the National Organic Standards Board to begin evaluating requests from fish farmers seeking organic eligibility. Catching wild animals does not fall under agriculture, so wild-caught fish cannot currently be labeled organic. However, in 2008, the board first approved criteria to pave the way for the organic labeling of farmed fish. The criteria simply included what “organic” fish could eat and was significantly more lax than for land-animals. After more than 10 years, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program still has no official plan for how to label farmed fish as organic, but the government is now saying that the final determination on the issue is about 6 months away.

How big of an impact can fish have? The United States is second only to China in seafood consumption. About half of the seafood eaten in the United States is wild-caught and half farm‑raised. However, a notable portion of “wild-caught” fish are actually young fish bred in hatcheries that were released into the wild.

The demand for seafood like salmon and tuna year-round is growing as we become more health conscious and appreciate the benefits seafood can provide us; like Omega-3. And, for so many Americans, the stamp of “organic” is the quintessential assurance of what is good and healthy. There is, of course, commercial interest in being able to join the organic movement and thus be able to charge a premium price for farmed fish. Americans are expected to buy more than $30 billion worth of organic grains, produce, coffee, wine, and meats this year.

Many people seem worried that lax labeling standards will undermine consumer confidence in the organic movement as promoting sustainable and eco-friendly products and injure the entire label. The organic label is growing in large part because more consumers are looking for food that comes with assurances. Due to the lack of official standards some grocery stores, like organic giant Whole Foods, have created their own “sustainable” standards as a substitute assurance. Perhaps we should be asking questions about the organic label itself. Does the label “organic” really increase the health value of a fish? Does it really ensure that we are consuming a sustainable or even “natural” food source? The term “sustainable” is certainly not a regulated term with a universal meaning. A USDA marketing service spokeswoman clarified that the USDA “doesn’t deal with nutrition or food safety. When you buy a steak that’s labeled choice or prime, that’s us. Is it healthy? Is it safe? That’s dealt with somewhere else.”

Currently, the two options for raising farmed fish are either to use open-ocean fish farms or inland facilities. It takes more energy and water to sustain the equivalent amount of fish produced in an inland facility as an open-ocean farm where water and waste disposal are free. The high-cost is partly why there are fewer inland facilities, and is also why open-ocean farms remain the most commercially viable option for fish farming. But open-ocean farms are highly criticized for the waste they generate, which can fertilize toxic marine algae blooms and produce low-oxygen dead zones. Residue from antibiotics and other chemical treatments has also been known to join the trail of waste from farm to ocean. Other high-profile side effects of open-ocean farming are chemical pollution and parasites like sea lice.

Since inland farms away from the ocean raise fish in completely closed recirculating systems, there is less risk of damage to marine or river ecosystems, which leads many to consider it a more eco-friendly option. One researcher, Thierry Chopin, is going a step further and pushing the development of sustainable inland ecosystems where other seafood like shellfish and kelp, which naturally recycle nutrients in the water, filter waste generated by the fish. He is even trying to alleviate the pressures on wild fish used in feed by developing a protein supplement for fish made from seaweed. The key to Chopin’s work affecting the overall fishing industry is that he addresses both inland facility structural defects and use of overfished wild stock in feed.

A study of fish catch data published in 2006 predicts that by 2048 all the world’s fisheries will collapse if current fishing trends continue. For people looking at the big picture impact of farmed fish, the question is how access by fish farms to organic certification will impact the already unbalanced fishing industry. Will farmed fish really help us get our protein at an affordable price while minimizing overfishing and wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems, or is the business adopting a dangerously similar outlook to the current economics-driven mentality behind terrestrial livestock farming?

The USDA has been forced to cast aside policy used for land-based animals and develop new organic certification standards for aquaculture. Carnivorous fish like salmon pose the biggest challenge in creating organic standards for farmed fish because it is so difficult to guarantee that their feed is 100% organic. Indeed some criticize the 2008 proposed criteria for aquaculture as unfair because land-animals are required to consume 100% organic feed, whereas “organic” fish farmers would be allowed to use 25% or less of wild fish as part of their feed mix. The proposed standards would also require feed be acquired from sustainable fish sources. This could be challenging since farmed salmon are typically fed fishmeal that consists of a ground-up paste of anchovies, menhaden, and other wild-caught species; some of which are suffering significant decline due to overfishing.

If the 2008 formal recommendations become official, all certified organic fish fed “environmentally friendly responsibly wild caught fish at any point in their life” would have to be “clearly labeled as such.” There are even proposals to make a distinction between “100% organic” and “organic.” The label “organic” would mean the product contained nothing less than 95% organically produced raw or processed agricultural products. However, farmers would not be restricted from using synthetic substances as disinfectants, medical treatments, topical treatments, or feed additives.

Hard work goes into giving us our tuna and salmon at almost any cost, financial or otherwise, but is it worth it? And will organic labeling of some fish cost us even more? It is overly simplistic to reduce the establishment of organic labeling to pure economics, but the dream of premium pricing of “organic” fish and capitalizing on a trend that has overtaken grocery stores and restaurants is definitely a major driver.  The organic label has become so profitable that many are finding ways to join the movement, whether they believe in the cause or not. Although this shift is not necessarily a bad thing, the organic movement was birthed as a pushback on modern large-scale agricultural practices, and perhaps the allure of the label is attracting a business mindset that is ready to compromise those ideals to generate greater profit. If we are further degrading wild fish stock by feeding farmed fish and harming river and marine ecosystems, then we not are really supporting a movement that has historically been focused on conservation and environmental issues; instead, we are simply calling profit by a different name.