U.K.'s Soil Association embraces organic aquaculture

Following eight years developing the most rigorous aquaculture standards and assessing every aspect of UK farmed fish production, the Soil Association - the original organic standards organisation - has given its full backing to organic aquaculture
August 17, 2006

Following eight years developing the most rigorous aquaculture standards and assessing every aspect of UK farmed fish production, the Soil Association - the original organic standards organisation - has given its full backing to organic aquaculture.

Although the Soil Association's aquaculture standards have had full organic status from the Government's Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS) since 1998, the Association's own governing body has demanded improvements above this baseline, and far greater clarity on the potential impacts of fish farming. To encourage this process, the standards had been held in 'interim' status by Soil Association's trustees. The removal of this 'interim' qualification reflects the results of three years' intensive work by the Association's aquaculture team.

Most of the world's wild fisheries face serious over-exploitation, and fish-farming yields are set to exceed wild catches over the next 20-30 years. As one of the world's leading organisations dedicated to sustainable food production, the Soil Association felt aquaculture was something it could not afford to ignore.

And notwithstanding the rapid growth in consumer interest, the Soil Association Council maintained interim status for eight years - uniquely across the sectors we license – whilst instigating an intensive three-year scientific research and development program. That development program led to a set of new, radically-improved standards - approved by Council in July, following field visits, seminars, and detailed briefing by staff.

Soil Association Scotland Director Hugh Raven hailed this crucial step-forward in organic aquaculture:
"The Soil Association has followed a responsible and pragmatic path to bringing aquaculture fully into the organic fold. It would have been a dereliction of duty to ignore this hugely important food sector - and one with the potential to vastly reduce the unsustainable exploitation of wild fisheries.

"But fish farming has been highly controversial – as is any food production system that puts profit before principles and good practice.

"As with land-based organic farming, the Soil Association's aim is to achieve the most sustainable production for aquaculture. Our new standards represent carefully targeted key improvements on their 'interim' predecessors. We are delighted Council recognises the progress we've made by unanimously granting them full approval.

"We now embark on a major programme of continuing work to develop the standards further – focusing on priorities such as sustainable fish feeds, moving away from potentially polluting veterinary treatments, and farming multiple species of fish, sea-weed and crustaceans to minimise nutrient losses - replicating the diversity of cropping and species found on land-based organic farms."

"This is great news for our certified fish-farmers who've been producing top-quality organic fish for several years:,Soil Association aquaculture specialist Peter Bridson added. "They and we take our responsibility to justify the trust of consumers extremely seriously. Though there's more work to do, we now feel confident that Soil Association-certified organic salmon and trout are the most sustainably produced fish consumers can buy. Another key factor in choosing organic farmed-fish is that this premium product allows smaller-scale, locally-based producers to make a living whilst respecting the ecological constraints of the aquatic environment."

Lewis Macleod, Lewis Salmon, Western Isles.
Lewis Macleod owns and runs Lewis Salmon in the Western Isles. Previously contracted to grow fish for large multinationals, Lewis is one of the most recent converts to Soil Association organic production:
"The big companies focussed only on large-scale production. Organic production is a more natural way to go."
As an experienced fish farmer, he feels that:"Rearing half the number of fish is better for the site and better for the seabed. The fish are of better quality and the site is more sustainable. Whilst it's more challenging to grow fish organically – and there are many more guidelines to adhere to - there's no doubt there's a good future for organic fish farming with more and more people looking to buy products which are free of chemicals."

Organic aquaculture standards
UK organic standards are regulated by Defra through its ACOS committee. Soil Association standards were already significantly higher than the ACOS baseline for organic aquaculture, and are generally considered to be the toughest in the world.

The Soil Association's governing body, its Council (comprising of trustees), oversees the development and final approval of all Soil Association organic standards.

The Soil Association had the UK's first organic aquaculture licensees in1998, and produces top quality award winning fish. Salmon produced by Balta Island Seafare in Shetland and smoked by the Inverawe Smokehouse, for example, recently won the best overall food award at the International Food and Drink Expo at the NEC in March. Both companies are Soil Association licensees.

Key Council concerns

Sustainability of feeds
Soil Association organic feeds use exclusively fishmeal and, where possible, fish oil made from the filleting waste products of fish already caught for human consumption. By recycling these wastes there is no direct pressure on wild fish stocks to feed organic fish.

The Soil Association has established a unique partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council, Aquascot - the sustainable seafood company - and Waitrose to ensure that by 2010 all fishmeal and oil used in Soil Association-certified diets is produced from waste products of fisheries independently certified by the MSC as sustainable.

Fish welfare
Organic fish farms have very low stocking densities - typically half the level of non-organic producers. The Soil Association is satisfied that being held at these densities in their natural environment optimises the health and well being of the fish.

Nutrient losses and their environmental impacts
Utilising waste nutrients as a resource is a central part of organic principles, and the Soil Association is keen to establish the widespread use of multi-species farming currently being tested at an organic salmon farm on the Western Isles. By combining the culture (in this case) of fish, shellfish and seaweeds, significant amounts of the fish wastes can be absorbed. The farm can produce economically viable secondary crops and the environmental impact can be further reduced.

Interactions with wild fish
If sea lice numbers on the farm are allowed to increase, or if the stock are not contained properly, then farmed fish can potentially have a serious impact on wild fish populations. The Soil Association has recently approved a strict new set of standards to control the former, while also demanding the highest levels of equipment maintenance to minimise escapes.