How fish could change what it means for food to be organic

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Farmed fish, like these rainbow trout, are at the center of a debate within the organic industry. (Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media)
Farmed fish, like these rainbow trout, are at the center of a debate within the organic industry. (Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media)
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Kristofor Husted reports for Harvest Public Media from KBIA in Columbia, Mo. 

When it comes to organic certification, there are strict guidelines for food producers to follow.

For an organic steak, the cow it came from has to be raised on organic feed and the feed mix can’t be produced with pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetic engineering.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in considering a set of rules for organic farmed fish. Several consumer groups, though, say the recommended rules don’t go far enough to meet the strict standards of other organic foods.

The feed for fish to eat is at the center of the debate.

The standards recommended by the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory board whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, suggest guidelines for how fish can be grown organically in pens in the ocean and how much wild caught fish can be used as protein in fish feed.

“What the national organic standards board recommended was that there would be some allowance for non-organic fish feed that would be phased out after a 12-year period of time,” said Miles Mcevoy, the deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Many organic stakeholders, however, say an organic diet is important for organic livestock and fish.

Lisa Bunin, the organic policy director at the Center for Food Safety, says fish farmed under the recommended standards shouldn’t be certified as organic.

“It’s not 100 percent organic and organic requires all animals to have an organic diet,” she said.

Bunin is also concerned about raising farmed fish in pens in the open ocean, as farmers can’t control what toxins the fish are exposed to. Ocean-based fish farms could also be a source of pollution. Diseases can pass between populations of wild and farmed fish.

“The particles from these facilities eventually settle on the ocean floor and can dramatically alter the oxygen and reduce the population of bottom dwelling animals,” Bunin said.

Consumer groups like Food and Water Watch and the Consumers Union have also opposed the recommended standards for organically farmed fish. 

Organic at the core

The organic food market is exploding – it’s currently worth about $35 billion a year—and many fish farmers and retailers want in.

But some in the organic industry worry that certifying farmed fish as organic would mark a watering down of organic standards. 

“There will be a significant consumer education piece involved in what is difference between a conventionally farmed fish and an organically farmed one,” said Nathaniel Lewis with the Organic Trade Association.  “And how does that relate to the difference between a conventional egg and an organic egg.”

With so many labels on food products at the grocery store, some worry that an organic label might lose its power.

Fish farmers and scientists are working to create more sustainable aquaculture. Some farms are using closed loop systems that recycle water and researchers are experimenting with fish feed made from ingredients like soybeans and animal byproducts, which could possibly make up certified organic feed.

Farms to look at market for organic demand

Troutdale Farm sits at the end of a dirt road near the edge of Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks. An upwelling spring feeds about a dozen cement raceways filled with rainbow trout. Workers use nets to pull out basketfuls of fully grown fish.

Troutdale owners Merritt Van Landuyt and her husband Dennis took over the farm in 2002 and revamped it with a new water system. They also decided against the use of any chemical additives, growth hormones or antibiotics. It’s a minimalist approach Merritt Van Landuyt said she’s proud of.

“We just decided to build a system that seemed like it could actually be more sustainable into the future,” she said.

The Troutdale fish aren’t technically organic, but it’s something Van Landuyt says she’ll consider if regulations are passed. It’s up to what her customers want, and ultimately, what the cost to the farm would be.

“It’s really fun to go out and play with the fish,” she said. “And it’s really nice to see those little eggs grow. But darn it, you’re still a business.”

For fish farmers like Van Landuyt, the organic debate is an important one.

The USDA plans to publish its organic standard proposal for farmed fish by summer. That will open a public comment period of at least 60 days.