Will politics derail US organic seafood?

When I wrote the article Organic Matters, hopes were high that, by the end of that year, the National Organic Standards Board would finally issue recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set official parameters for organic seafood.

That was 2007. When asked why this process was taking so long, and if the cards were simply stacked against seafood’s chances of getting a piece of the lucrative organic market, a USDA spokesperson replied recently that USDA “supports all forms of agriculture, including aquaculture."

Others aren’t so sure.

The hierarchy overseeing organic certification in the United States is, in a word, complex. Oversight of any and all organic production standards falls to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). For aquaculture, NOP relies on recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Livestock Committee, which officially appointed an Aquaculture Working Group (AWG) to help create a set of standards for organic aquaculture, which it dutifully did in early 2010.

But essentially nothing has happened since then, aside from delays. The inaction is frustrating to the people who’ve worked for years on these standards, like George Lockwood, the AWG chairman. When NOSB meets in San Antonio, Texas, later this month, Lockwood says a series of critical recommendations — the use of vaccines and chlorine in culture water are particularly important for fish — must be amended if organic aquaculture is to ever become reality. Despite the fact that all these substances are used in organic terrestrial agriculture, he’s not confident of the amendments’ passage, or that the finish line is in sight.

“Without the allowance of the 10 synthetic substances for which our official Aquaculture Working Group has petitioned, there can be no organic aquaculture,” said Lockwood. “Under the present policy of the [NOP] to exclude their appointed experts on aquaculture, who are members of AWG, there is a major risk that restrictions added by NOSB members at their next meeting will be counter to workable and sensible uses of these materials.”

What Lockwood is saying is that the very people recruited for their expertise are essentially being shut out of the process, leaving NOSB members to “use their imaginations,” he said, rather than the experts they commissioned.

Worse, voices that seem to be getting the board’s attention, he added, belong to known opponents to organic aquaculture, such as Food & Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides and the National Organic Coalition. All of these groups are close to Washington, while Lockwood (California) and other AWG members are scattered about the country. From 2005 to 2010, Lockwood says his travel costs and other requirements were fully accommodated, but that’s no longer the case.

Miles McEvoy, NOP deputy administrator, did not personally address questions regarding the delays and any real or perceived exclusion of AWG members.

An assistant, however, referred to the proposed amendments as needing specific approval due to use in a different context (water, as opposed to land). “Given the complexity of any proposed standards for organic aquaculture, the process has taken some time,” the spokesperson admitted. “We want to ensure that any standards developed will be clear and enforceable for the organic community.”

You can be sure of this: Should standards be finalized, producers would line up to qualify. More producers aiming for the highest benchmark would be your proverbial win-win.

What the NOSB decides could set the course for the future, or set the movement back significantly — which is nothing new. Considering all the talk to improve aquaculture practices worldwide, and the desires for the United States to be a leader if and when domestic production ever takes off, organic standards could serve as the new yardstick. Without progress now, folks like Lockwood may start waving the white flag.

Flash back to that 2007 article, when Neil Sims, then the president of Kona Blue Water Farms in Hawaii, said: “The industry could set the bar higher; we want it to be something that’s challenging to achieve. We never want to lose sight of what organic is supposed to be — better for the planet and better for the consumer.”

By “challenging to achieve,” I don’t think Sims meant the actual standards themselves.


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