THE WASHINGTON POST
November 21, 2008
WASHINGTON - For the first time, a federal advisory board has approved criteria that clear the way for farmed fish to be labeled "organic," a move that pleased aquaculture producers even as it angered environmentalists and consumer advocates.
The question of whether farmed fish could be labeled organic, especially carnivorous species such as salmon that live in open-ocean net pens and consume vast amounts of smaller fish, has vexed scientists and federal regulators for years.
Standards approved Wednesday by the National Organic Standards Board would allow organic fish farmers to use wild fish as part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25 percent of the total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden, that have declined sharply as the demand for farmed fish has skyrocketed.
"Finally, maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of defining what's organic," said Wally Stevens, executive director of the Global Aquaculture Alliance. "The challenge is to figure out how we can produce a healthy protein product with a proper regard to where the feed comes from."
Environmentalists and consumer advocates blasted the recommendations, which would serve as the basis for regulations to be issued by the Agriculture Department.
Activists questioned why up to 25 percent of fish feed could be made of nonorganic material, while all other animals certified as organic must eat 100 percent organic feed. They also note open-net pens can harm the environment by allowing fish waste and disease to pollute the ocean. "What we think is at stake is not just the integrity of a standard for fish but the whole organic standard and consumer confidence in it," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
"A huge part of the growth in organic is driven by people looking for food that comes with assurance. When you start bending the rules, that's a big risk."
George Leonard, a marine ecologist and aquaculture director for the Ocean Conservancy, said the board sought to accomplish the "extraordinarily complicated" task of establishing a sustainable farming practice that does not yet exist. He said requiring organic operations to use feed made of trimmings from sustainable wild-caught fish, such as pollock, or from organically farmed fish would be better than relying on the small, wild fish farmers currently use.
"This is a good example in which the devil is in the details," Leonard said. "There is a very real risk that the decision could undermine consumers' confidence in the organic label if the goal of sustainable and environmentally friendly fish does not play out in practice."
Federal officials and advisers have devoted enormous time and effort to developing an organic fish standard, reflecting the dramatic growth of the industry in recent years. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007 and are projected to reach nearly $23.6 billion this year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Fueled at least in part by fears about food safety, sales of organic meat increased tenfold, from $33 million in 2002 to $364 million in 2007, according to market research firm Mintel.
Lots of people assume that all farmed fish are bad and that wild caught fish are the only fish to eat. That is not the whole story. Each fishery has to be elavulated on an individual basis. Some farms are great as opposed to the majority. The same can be said of wild caught fish. Many factors detemine the sustainability of fish. Sure wild fish may be pure and natural. But that is not the case if they come from not so clean waters. Or if wild fish have bycatch issues. This is where they catch other unusable fish in the nets.
For a complete rundown of the best choices in seafood visit Seafood Watch.
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