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What Farming Fish ‘Organically’ Could Mean

The organic food market is exploding and many fish farmers and retailers want in. But some in the organic industry say “not so fast.”

Troutdale farmhand Vince Orcutt pulls out rainbow trout ready to harvest in Gravois Mills, Mo.

Making Exceptions For Organic Fish?

When it comes to organic certification, there are strict guidelines for food producers to follow. Think about an organic steak. The cow it came from has to be raised on organic feed. 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. The problem is several consumer groups say the recommended rules don’t go far enough to meet the strict standards of other organic foods.

“This National Organic Standards Board worked for a period of years and put together a series of recommendations on organic aquaculture,” said Miles Mcevoy, the deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program.

The recommended standards 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,” he said.

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.

Loose Regulations Don’t Fit Organic Standard

Lisa Bunin, the organic policy director at the Center for Food Safety, disagrees. She says the diet is important.

“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 the ocean. That’s because farmers can’t control what toxins the fish are exposed to and the fish farms could be a source of pollution.

“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,” she said. Diseases can be passed between populations of wild and farmed fish.

Consumer groups like Food and Water Watch and the Consumers Union agree with Bunin.

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.

There will be a significant consumer education piece involved in what is difference between a conventionally farmed fish and an organically farmed one.

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.” Indeed, the business side of organic fish could fall either way depending on how consumers interpret the standards set.

Organic Brand At Risk

The organic food market is exploding. It’s worth about $35 billion a year. And many fish farmers and retailers do want in. But some in the organic industry say “not so fast.” They’re wary of the impact less stringent regulations could have on other organic foods.

“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.”

Still, 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.

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.

Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

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