I had lunch recently with representatives of our certifier, Pennsylvania Certified Organic, who were in town for a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board. Among the questions the board discussed was organic certification for fish, which raised some fascinating questions.
With all the concerns about mercury and other toxins in our food supply, it’s easy to understand why consumers and retailers are interested in purchasing certified organic fish. But as we discussed what would be involved in certifying organic fish, it quickly became apparent how complicated such a task would be.
First of all, there’s the question about how to maintain the integrity of the water supply. The organic rules are straightforward about what goes into the land. Livestock and agricultural crops cannot be situated on land that has been treated with synthetic chemicals in the past three years. As we have learned with purchasing organic honey for Honest Tea, there are even rules that apply to land where bees might fly — an apiary, where bees gather, cannot be within two miles of any pollution source. And if you think monitoring the flight of bees might be difficult, consider analyzing fish habitats such as oceans, lakes, and rivers, not to mention migratory paths. And how can you enforce and secure a clean water supply? An oil spill dozens of miles away could still contaminate a tuna population.
Of course, one potential solution to protecting a water supply would be to raise fish inside netted areas or on aquafarms, but those are hardly the conditions we envision for healthier fish. There is also the question of where the organic food for the fish comes from. For fish that consume seaweed, it’s not hard to understand how organic seaweed might be cultivated, but for fish that consume other small fish, it’s harder to understand how organic fish food is created.
While I agree that consumers should be able to identify a way to tell whether their fish is produced in a more sustainable and healthier way, I don’t believe organic certification is the proper mechanism for doing so. Organic certification currently applies to agricultural product. The word agriculture itself is derived from the Latin root ager or “field” and ultimately I don’t think fish can be, or more importantly, should be, from a field.