MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The organic food industry is worth a whopping $35 billion a year, and it's growing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now looking to add farmed fish to the list of certified organic products, but that's posing a problem. Critics say the rules for certification don't go far enough. The main issue involves what those fish eat, as Kristofor Husted of member station KBIA reports.
KRISTOFOR HUSTED, BYLINE: To earn organic certification, producers have to follow strict USDA guidelines. Think about an organic steak. The cow had to be raised on organic feed. The feed mix can't be produced with pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetic engineering. Miles McEvoy is the deputy administrator of the USDA's Organic Program.
MILES MCEVOY: In terms of aquaculture, there's never been standards that have been developed under the USDA organic standards.
HUSTED: Got that? There's no such thing as an organic farmed fish - at least not yet. The USDA wants to change that with new guidelines for fish farms interested in seeking that certification - farms like Troutdale, which sits at the end of a dirt road near the edge of Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. An upwelling spring feeds a dozen cement raceways filled about 40-feet long filled with rainbow trout. Workers use a net to pull out basketfuls of fully-grown fish about a foot long. When Troutdale owner Merritt Van Landuyt and her husband Dennis took over the farm, they reworked the water system and ended the use of chemical additives, growth hormones and antibiotics.
MERRITT VAN LANDUYT: We just decided to build a system that seemed like it could actually be more sustainable into the future.
HUSTED: While the Troutdale fish aren't technically organic yet, it's something Van Landuyt says she'll consider once she sees the final organic rules. Right now, the recommended guidelines allow ground-up wild fish to be used as food for the farmed fish. That fish meal is a critical part of the diet for carnivorous fish, like trout and salmon. But that's a red flag for food safety and consumer groups that say organic feed also has to be sustainable. Lisa Bunin is the organic policy director at the Center for Food Safety.
LISA BUNIN: It's not 100 percent organic, and organic requires all animals to have an organic diet. And with the fish meal and fish oil, it actually sets up a competition between farmed fish and wild fish.
HUSTED: It takes about three pounds of feeder fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon. And with seafood sales booming, the tiny wild fish used in feed are being overfished. If organic fish are allowed to be fed unsustainable food like this, the whole organic aisle could be called into question, according to Nathaniel Lewis with the Organic Trade Association.
NATHANIEL LEWIS: There will be a significant consumer education piece involved in what is the difference between a conventionally farmed fish and an organically farmed one, and how does that relate to the difference between a conventional egg and an organic egg?
HUSTED: Still, fish farmers and scientists are working to create more sustainable aquaculture. Researchers are experimenting with fish feed made from ingredients like soybeans and animal byproducts. Back at the Troutdale farm, workers are harvesting rainbow trout that will end up on tables in Kansas City and St. Louis. Merritt Van Landuyt says she'll have to see if her customers really want the organic label and at what cost.
VAN LANDUYT: It's really fun to go out and play with the fish, and it's really nice to see those little eggs grow. (Laughter) But darn it, you're still a business.
HUSTED: Eventually shoppers will be able to pick up fish in the organic aisle to eat for dinner. Now, what those farmed fish will be allowed to eat is still getting hashed out. For NPR News, I'm Kristofor Husted.
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