Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist at Consumers Union. (Photo: Consumers Union)
The National Organic Standards Board wants to allow fish farmers to label their products “organic”. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood turns to Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist and policy analyst with Consumers Union, to find out just how organic a farmed fish can be.
CURWOOD: Fish farming—or aquaculture—is a billion dollar business in the U.S. these days. And as health-conscious consumers increasingly demand organic products, fish farmers want a piece of that lucrative market as well. The Aquaculture Working Group of the National Organic Standards Board has made a proposal for the organic labeling of farmed fish. But critics say industry is overrepresented in that body, and as a result the proposal falls short of what’s needed for consumer protection.
Urvashi Rangan is senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. Ms. Rangan, welcome back to Living on Earth.
RANGAN: Good to be here, Steve.
CURWOOD: So, when I think of organic—I’m thinking an organic fish ought not to have what—any mercury or PCBs and it’s been fed the purest of pure organic food. What does the Aquaculture Working Group’s report recommend exactly?
RANGAN: Steve, what you think organic ought to be is exactly what our survey shows most consumers think it ought to be. Unfortunately, the report from the Aquaculture Working Group wants to allow—first of all—up to 25 percent non-organic feed—that is fish meal farmed out in the ocean, which could be contaminated with PCBs or mercury. The other thing that the Aquaculture Working Group is recommending are the use of what’s called open net pens. These are basically open nets that are put in the ocean or other bodies of water, where fish are raised, but all the water is exchanged nonstop and so the waste that’s created in these net systems basically washes out to sea.
RANGAN: Absolutely. There are a variety of fish that are raised in what are called ‘closed systems.’ They are either tanks or contained in ponds. Shrimp and tilapia are examples of that. And in fact, these are also vegetarian fish. And these fish can be fed a diet of 100 percent organic feed. There are some fish today that should be eligible to be labeled as organic, but we think a line needs to be drawn in the sand between those types of fish that are vegetarian and can be raised in systems that don’t pollute. Let them go organic. And let’s not allow fish that eat less than 100 percent organic feed, that could be contaminated, and that could pollute the ocean or other water bodies in their farm systems, let them not be labeled organic.
CURWOOD: Now, what are some of the positive impacts that granting the organic label to fish farming could have? What would it do in terms of inspiring better environmental stewardship, do you think?
RANGAN: Well there are a lot of great things that could happen actually, and with shrimp production for example—about 70 percent of the shrimp that we get in this country is imported. Lots of problems with shrimp coming in from China. The great thing about shrimp production happening in an organic way is of course, the oversight that you have in terms of what can be used. That is, no drugs, no antibiotics, and really an assurance system that guarantees that those products meet a set of standards. That’s just one great advantage of organic production, not just for shrimp, but for any kind of fish.
CURWOOD: Now, by the way, shouldn’t any wild-caught fish be considered organic or not?
RANGAN: While on some level it makes sense in that, aren’t they the most natural fish because they come from the wild? If you think about it, to be organic on top of wild adds absolutely no value. The other issue is that you can’t control production systems in the wild and organic is a controlled production system. You want to control the inputs, the outputs, the waste, the feed, and those are really the central tenets to organic production. And for those reasons, wild-raised animals aren’t really eligible to be labeled as organic.
CURWOOD: And, how about a little bit of advice to consumers. How important is it for consumers to seek out organic fish products?
RANGAN: Well, at this time, the organic seafood that is on the market really doesn’t have to meet any set of standards. Consumers should not pay more for the organic fish that they see on the market at this time. It could be loaded with contaminants, for example, and it could even be raised with antibiotics and other drugs. We simply don’t have standards in this country for those products to meet. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that when the standards are finally completed, which will likely be at least a year from now, at that point, consumers may very well have some meaningful options when it comes to organic fish. But it really all depends on what the USDA decides to do and whether they’re going to weaken those standards so that all those fish can swim to the organic label, or whether they really just allow that label to be used on the fish that deserve it.
CURWOOD: Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union and director of GreenerChoices.org. Thank you so much, Urvashi!
RANGAN: Thank you.
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