The National Organics Standards Board is recommending the USDA allow farmed fish to be labeled "organic." These "organic" fish could be fed up to 25 percent non-organic fish feed, and could also be kept in open ocean pens despite ongoing concern this can impact the wild fish supply and the marine ecosystem. Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch tells host Bruce Gellerman these recommendations dilute organics standards.
GELLERMAN: The production of organic food is heavily regulated. Farmers who want to label their food organic can't use pesticides, hormones, or artificial fertilizers, and they must feed livestock an organic diet. It's a big business, and growing, but until now there was no such thing as an organic fish; organic beef, broccoli, and butter yes, but organic fish - no.
However, that could soon change. The National Organic Standards Board - which advises the USDA in these matters - has voted in favor of creating standards so fish farmers can also go organic. Joining me to talk about the vote is Patty Lovera, she's assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a non-profit consumer group based in Washington D.C. Hi Ms. Lovera.
LOVERA: Thanks for having me.
GELLERMAN: Now the advisory group to the USDA has decided that farm-raised fish can be called organic or at least some can. Which farm-raised fish can be called organic?
LOVERA: So what the national organic standards board did was set out a recommendation to the USDA, and the USDA now has to write the rules for how you would certify farmed fish as organic. And there were a couple controversial pieces in that recommendation they made. And they said that farm-raised fish that are raised in something called open net pens, which are, you know, open to the environment, they're often done out in the open ocean - that those could be possibly organic and that fish that were fed up to 25 percent wild fish in their diet could be certified as organic. And those are both very controversial decisions because we think they - our group and lots of other groups - thinks that it contradicts the real basic principles of organic production.
GELLERMAN: They can use 25 percent of wild fish in the organic fishes' feed. Now a fish like tilapia could be raised on grain. So you could feed it 100% organic grain and call it organic, I guess, under this ruling. But salmon eat other fish, so if a salmon eats a wild fish and that wild fish is not organic, the farm-raised salmon is still considered organic?
LOVERA: Right. We believe you can't really certify something as organic if you're not in control of its production. I mean one of the core principles of organic is that you're controlling the inputs and the outputs from that system, and so how do you certify something that's wild. Um, that gets hard to do if you don't know what it was eating, you don't know how it was - you know, how it grew up. So, that's been a controversial piece and there's still unresolved issues there within organic. But what we do know is that other livestock, other organic animals that become food, they're supposed to eat 100 percent organic feed and this is a really gaping loophole to set an exemption so high at 25 percent to let, you know, let this industry off the hook that other industries have to meet. There was another approach that the NOSB could have taken. They could have started with the stuff that's a lot more compatible with organic production methods and those are vegetarian fish in closed system where you don't have a lot of water flowing in and out and the possible pollution that comes from that. They chose not to do that. They chose to go for kinda the whole enchilada and deal with the whole aquaculture industry and give them a way into organic, and we think that's just overreaching and it just misses the point of the fact that they're supposed to set standards, not just open the door for anybody that wants to come get this label.
GELLERMAN: Well let's talk about the pens vote - that is they voted overwhelmingly - ten to four - to allow organic raised fish to be raised in the open pens. So what's the problem there?
LOVERA: Well, we have a concern with anybody using these open net pens in the open ocean. I mean, we've been very active trying to stop the promotion of this with any label on it, let alone organic. It's a very controversial method. You know, we know that the fish escape and so if you have different species, you know, breeding with the wild fish that can damage their genetics. We know that the pollution caused by confining that many fish together flows out of these pens and can pollute the surrounding environment. You know, we know there's so many risks with doing this type of production anywhere, and then to call it organic, it's just really disturbing. The board did try to put some strings on it. They said oh, you know, be careful where you site it. You know, don't put this kind of fish in this kind of environment because of the escape possibility. But none of the strings they put on it are enough.
GELLERMAN: To your way of thinking, then, can there be an organic fish or is that an oxymoron?
LOVERA: We think that you could come up with a way to have organic farmed fish that was compatible with organic standards if you start at an appropriate level, which is like we talked about with the vegetarian fish. You can do it in a closed system. There's, you know, ways you can do it if you keep those principles at the center of it. But when you start branching out to these carnivorous fish, to these systems that are out in the open ocean or out in bodies of water, that's when you kind of lose it on organic.
GELLERMAN: Well who has been advocating this? Who benefits from this decision?
LOVERA: I mean there is an aquaculture industry, you know, globally, that wants in on the organic market. I mean, they see the growth in organic, they see consumers' response to it and they're looking for that label, that stamp of approval. And there's been more coverage of the environmental damage of a lot of types of aquaculture and I think that they're looking for something to kinda deal with that stigma and say "No, we're really - look at us, we're good, we're organic." And so at every meeting there's a bunch of us saying don't do it and there's also a bunch of companies saying, "Come on, come on, let us in. We can do it. We can do it. We're good. Check us out. We're environmentally safe." And it's, you know, it's a real show usually during the public comment period from both sides.
GELLERMAN: You know, Ms. Lovera, organic farming has had positive effects on land use and it's been good for people to eat. Would it be good to introduce that kind of farming to our oceans?
LOVERA: That was a really popular comment from the members of the board during the discussion about this issue. And it's kind of an enticing argument, it can kind of suck you in. But our response to that is that the job of the National Organic Standards Board and the integrity of organic depends on really holding fast to a set of organic principles which are, animals eat organic feed, you minimize environmental impact, you promote biodiversity. Not that you just do slightly better than your competitors who are conventional. I mean, it's had the impact of cleaning up practices because the industry's had to reach a standard to get that seal.
GELLERMAN: Well I want to thank you very much, Ms. Lovera.
LOVERA: Alright, thanks.
GELLERMAN: Patty Lovera is Assistant Director of Food and Water Watch. We were also scheduled to speak with Dr. Hubert Karreman - the chairman of the advisory board to the USDA's Organic program - but unfortunately Dr. Karreman had to cancel our interview at the last minute.