We’ve been educating ourselves and others about organic farming, agriculture and organic food for years now. But not long ago, we accidentally came up with a question that led to writing this article. We suppose there are many others who haven’t really given any thought to it too, but it’s really something interesting enough to talk about.
Is there such thing as organic seafood?
This is a question that has been troubling even the Agriculture Department for quite some time. First, let’s say that the fish we see on the markets mainly divides in two types, the first is farmed, which means it is being grown by man in special breeding ponds, and the second type is wild caught seafood that resides naturally in seas and oceans. Since fish, and shellfish are among the staple foods of many people around the globe, and wild fish quantity is getting short year by year, fish farming is spreading rapidly, and seems more necessary if billions of us are to continue including fish into our diet.
First, let’s throw in a fast definition for organic foods, so those who aren’t familiar with the whole concept can understand what we’re talking about. There are a few organizations that permit the organic seal to foods that qualify, the most famous of which are the European Commission’s organic label, The USDA label, Agriculture Biologique, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), etc. The USDA for instance allows organic certification to edible products that have at least 95% organic ingredients.
Farmers who want to have organic vegetables and fruits must use natural methods for controlling pest, insects, weeds and parasites. They are also obligated to use natural fertilizers for the soil like compost or manure, and to not cultivate GMO plants. Livestock owners must use only organic food as a nutrition source for the animals. The animals also must not be treated with hormones, antibiotics and other chemical medication. They are to be allowed fresh air, freedom to move around and direct sunlight. Milking cows and other livestock must have access to graze on pastures at least 4 months a year.
What about fish then? As we mentioned, there are wild caught fish and farm raised fish.
Wild caught seafood is usually not specifically bred for sale and eating, therefore fishermen have to catch it straight from the sea, river, lake or whatever.
On the other hand, farm grown fish are exactly the opposite of wild caught. They are grown in breeding pools, and fed a concrete diet to procreate more effectively and grow faster.
Many believe that wild caught fish are the safest fish to eat, and have greater nutrition, but is that really true? It may come as a shocking surprise to you, but the nutritional differences between farm-raised fish and wild caught aren’t significant at all. Let’s take trout for example. Wild caught and farmed trout are nearly similar in terms of protein, calories and most other nutrients. The slight differences are that farm-raised trout has more selenium and vitamin A, while wild caught contains a little more iron and calcium. What about the essential omega fatty acids that we eat fish for in the first place? Contrary to what most people might think, farm-raised fish have more of the valuable, heart-healthy fats. Farmed Atlantic salmon nowadays contains more omega-3 fatty acids than wild Atlantic salmon.
Image Credit: huffingtonpost.ca
Geography is a very important indicator for the quality of wild fish. Different water regions have minor to great difference in terms of contamination. One of the latest mercury reports by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scrutinizes the mercury levels in different types of fish, and gives you an advice for best fish to eat and fish you should avoid. If you’re looking to buy wild caught fish, aim for West Coast salmon caught in the Pacific Ocean along the coastlines of Washington, Oregon, and California, or wild Alaskan salmon. Other decent choices are: herring, mussels, oysters, clams, anchovies, shrimp, and scallops. On the flip side, the fish you should try to abstain from are: marlin, shark, tilefish, bluefin tuna, and king mackerel.
What about genetic modification and contaminants? Despite that many say a large portion of farmed seafood is GMO, that’s doesn’t seem to be a fact. For instance, you may have read about striped-bass and the strange zig zags in their stripes. However, it’s not because this is a GMO fish, but because it’s a natural hybrid between white bass and striped bass. Currently, there isn’t any edible genetically modified fish in the US, though there was news about the FDA approving the development of GMO salmon that may hit the American market soon. What will really happen, remains to be seen.
Vietnamese Fish Farm
Whatever method we choose to procure fish for the market, we should do it smart and we should protect the environment while doing so. We say this because wild caught fish are sometimes harvested using practices that can further harm the ecosystem and the rest of the sea life, not to mention the pollution oil platforms and ships cause to the seas and oceans, pollution that contaminates part of wild fish.
Fish farming can also pollute the water and have a negative influence of the fauna and flora. For instance, dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins have been established in farmed Scottish salmon. The reason for that was the industrial pollution throughout the whole 20 century. That’s why in the United States the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has set a number of regulations that aim to protect the fish populations and the marine environment. Fish farming in the US is also strictly regulated. All water that is released into the environment must be cleaner or at least as clean as it was when it came in. The thing is however, that not all countries have such unconditional rules about fish farming. The United States produce only about 2.5% of the total farmed fish in the world, and 90% of the fish consumption in America is imported. Nowadays, 50% of the whole fish consumption in the world is farmed fish. If the fish we eat are completely fit for eating and pure, they can be one of the best additions to a healthy diet and a potent anti-aging food. That’s why it is so important to keep high standards when it comes to preserving the seas, and raising fish using responsible methods.
So with all we said, we can conclude that both wild caught and farmed fish have their pros and cons.
If there were any organic seafood, it hasn’t still received an USDA certification in the USA. The Soil Association is known to be one of the first organizations to concern itself with the potential development of organic aquaculture. Other organizations like the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia in Canada do certify fish as organic. Some of those fish are sold in the US and have a seal. For example, a company named OceanBoy Farms, located in Florida, are selling organic shrimps to Costco, Wal-Mart, and other retailers. In Manhattan, New York, there is also a seafood market called Lobster Place that sells organic “king” salmon from New Zealand that is offered at $13.50 per pound, compared with $22.95 for wild king salmon and $9.95 for farm-raised salmon.
Presumably in the future, the USDA’s National Organics Standards Board will perhaps take recommendations from the Aquaculture Working Group to start certifying organic seafood, as long as it meets certain regulations.
Instead of industrial fish meal, carnivore fish have to be fed organic fish trimmings that are suitable for human consumption (which is more challenging), while vegetarian fish must be given any other appropriate feed that is certified organic (which is an easier task). Growth hormones and antibiotics are of course forbidden, as well as the use of artificial dyes that add a more intense color to the fish. This is a very common practice, done to lure the buyers. Stocking densities have to be two times less than those of conventional fish farms. This makes living conditions better, plus it helps prevent “mass escapes”. In cases of such escapes, tens of thousands of farmed fish have been assumed to have chased entire fish populations out of their natural habitats.
Furthermore, federal agencies like the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, are rewriting the rules so that fish farms can fit the policies that go for land-based farms. There are certain guidelines that are in development. These guidelines are specifically being made to be in reference with the aquaculture. Word is that they would allow up to 25% of conventional material in the content of feed intended for certified organic fish. According to the plan, this number is ought to be gradually reduced in time, though there are critics who have their doubts whether it will happen at all.
To boot, Zeke Grader who is a member of the San Francisco’s Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, believes certified organic fish is quite possible and can happen in larger scale, but fish would have to be raised in fully closed, circulating systems that don’t have a connection with the oceans. That’s because there is a chance for contamination and infestation. For example, there are some salmon farms with open-ocean pens that have been reported infested with a sea parasite named sea lice. According to scientists, this marine parasite has wiped out entire salmon populations near British Columbia.
In 2014, The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)-Regional Fisheries Training Center (RFTC) of the Department of Agriculture alongside with the provincial government recently carried out a two day tuition for fish farmers regarding the production of organic tilapia. There were a total of 6 trainers during the instruction classes who were teaching the concept of organic aquaculture farming and other things among which climate change and its effects over fisheries, Aquatic Animal Health and Environmental Management of Organic Farming, history of tilapia and more.
This initiative was done in support to the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010, also known as the Republic Act of 2010. According to this act, the state will promote, aid, and take part in the development and functioning of organic agriculture that will help reduce environmental pollution, prevent the depletion of natural resources, as well as further protect the health of the farm land, the farmers and consumers.
You see that organic seafood is not that accessible, all the more in most countries, but if you look hard enough, you might find some, it’s definitely worth the effort if you personally know the pros of eating organic. Obviously, more work needs to be done so that consumers can fully distinguish organic fish from wild caught and regular farm raised. as well as freely opt for organic farm raised seafood that represents safe to eat fish. Regulating organizations and agencies also need to tighten up the rules and sanctions concerning sea pollution and the preservation of marine wildlife.