Organic Aquaculture:
A New Wave of the Future

The following is a popular, non-copyrighted article on the National Organic Aquaculture Workshop held June 23-24, 2000 at the University of Minnesota and an update on the process to develop national organic standards for aquaculture.
Deborah J. Brister and Anne R. Kapuscinski
Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability
186 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Avenue
University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108 U.S.A.

Representatives from the aquaculture and organic agriculture sectors met this June at the National Organic Aquaculture Workshop which was hosted by the University of Minnesota's Institute for Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability (ISEES). This was not the first time these sectors had met, but it was the first time they, along with others from academia, NGO's and government actually worked with each other, in a remarkably cooperative spirit, towards developing national (U.S.) organic aquaculture standards.

ISEES Director, Professor Anne Kapuscinski and Organic Aquaculture Project Manager, Deborah Brister have been interested in bringing these groups together for over a year since they made recommendations to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) last June (1999). "More input is needed from the aquaculture sector before final organic aquaculture standards can be put in place" commented Kapuscinski and Brister in their testimony to the Board. The NOSB agreed, and with support of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, Packard Foundation, Minnesota Sea Grant and the U of M's Extension Service, 43 national and international participants came together to address issues of concern regarding NOSB's recently drafted organic aquaculture standards.

The first day of the workshop, featured presentations and small group breakout sessions focused on the NOSB draft standards. However, on the second day, participants decided to start redrafting new general principles for organic aquaculture. The general principles address: basic conditions, location of production units, location of collecting areas, health and welfare, spawning, reproduction and breeding, nutrition, harvesting, transportation of living aquatic organisms and slaughter.

Preliminary progress motivated workshop participants to continue the discussion of organic aquaculture general principles with an eye towards the group eventually developing standards under each principle, so workshop attendees formed a Working Group to carry on the discussion, and ISEES created an Internet Discussion Room. The Working Group will be one means by which people interested organic aquaculture can connect with the NOSB. The Discussion Room website has now posted the draft general principles with comments from the workshop. The site also has the ability to store reference documents and articles for Working Group members to access and consult as needed.

What is the current status of national (U.S.) organic standards?
The process for establishing national organic aquaculture standards has really just begun. The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), established as a result of the 1990 Organic Food Production Act, has been drafting the national organic standards with the help of the National Organic Standards Board, a group of 15 individuals representing different segments of the organic community including producers, certifying agents, and consumers. So far, the NOP has submitted two proposed rules for organic crop and terrestrial livestock production, processing, handling and labeling for public review and many people have submitted comments. The Final Rule should be published by the end of the year with implementation (after accreditation of certifiers) by the year 2002. Standards for aquatic animals are currently not in the Proposed Rule but instead will be amended to the Final Rule once they are developed. Although the NOSB has discussed several drafts of organic aquaculture standards, much work needs to be done to make these feasible.

What is "organic?"
Organic certification is a process claim, not a product claim. In other words, organic standards regulate the practices and materials used to produce an agricultural product. It does not make any claims about the end product such as nutritional value or food safety (these claims are regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service and Food and Drug Administration), however organic producers have to follow the same strict guidelines at the local, state and federal level that all conventional food producers must follow.

Organic food production promotes biodiversity, biological cycles and biological activity. Organic farmers aim to manage food production as an integrated, whole system that is, as Fred Kirschenmann, former NOSB Livestock Chair describes, an "organism" whose individual parts mesh together into one whole production system. For example, in livestock production, the organic farmer relies on biological processes to integrate the management of individual parts including nutrient inputs, the animals themselves, the environment in which they live and the waste that is produced. These individual parts are connected, each component depending on every other component. When these parts are balanced within the production system, the system can be considered sustainable-one of the goals of organic production.

Organic food production encourages the maintenance and sustainability of this system by restricting the introduction of harmful substances and practices that reduce, or alter the connectedness of the system's components. For instance, in terrestrial livestock, organic production standards now prohibit the use of antibiotics. Instead, good health management practices such as taking steps to minimize stress, allowing freedom of movement, providing appropriate living conditions, and organic feed optimize the health of the animal and reduce the reliance on drugs, including antibiotics. Interestingly, organic livestock producers initially did not think this was possible, however with the development of new farming practices, they eventually decided they no longer needed to use antibiotics to successfully raise organic livestock. This "raising of the bar" has enabled organic livestock producers to clearly set their product apart from conventional terrestrial production and obtain a premium price for it.

Where does aquaculture fit in?
The challenge for organic aquaculture is to follow the same general principles as terrestrial organic agriculture, a significant challenge, given the basic differences between terrestrial and aquatic animals. Consider for a moment the difference in providing treatment to sick animals. Observing sick terrestrial animals is much easier than observing aquatic animals through water. Terrestrial animals can be treated individually. Aquatic animals must be treated as a group. In addition, terrestrial animals can be treated using a variety of methods. Treatment for aquatic animals is extremely limited, usually through medicated feed or baths. If aquatic animals go off feed, then medicated feed is completely ineffective. Within aquaculture, there are also huge differences between the species themselves. Rearing mussels, for instance, is vastly different than rearing trout.

Despite these differences, organic livestock and organic aquaculture have important features in common. Broad general principles such as good nutrition, the maintenance of animal health and welfare, and recycling of nutrients where possible are as relevant to aquatic animal production as they are for terrestrial livestock production. General principles are the overarching guides for production. The (more specific) standards under each principle are the rules that organic farmers must follow. The standards are group or even species-specific so it will be possible to meet the diverse requirements of different aquaculture species within these standards.

Because aquaculture and organic agriculture are the two fastest growing sectors in American agriculture today, there will likely be a niche for farmers interested in going the extra mile for organic aquaculture certification. As any organic producer will tell you, it is not easy. For example, farmers must keep thorough records to meet certification requirements. Producers must record all substances put into the production system. Many substances are restricted entirely (including genetically engineered organisms) with only a limited number allowed (however some substances can be petitioned for inclusion). Achieving organic nutrient management requirements may simply be too difficult for some aquaculture systems. Thus, it would be unrealistic to say that all aquaculture systems, at least as we currently know them, would be eligible for organic certification.

Even with the restrictions mentioned above, some farmers are definitely interested in meeting stricter requirements. And those that meet them can expect higher returns for their organic product. Repeated studies have suggested that consumers choose and feel they understand the organic label above all other natural or eco-friendly labels. Currently there are over 40 state and independent organic certifiers in the United States with organic standards that vary from certifier to certifier (very few presently have aquaculture standards). When national organic standards are in place, all products making an organic claim will have to meet national organic standards and may carry the USDA Organic label that consumers trust and are willing to pay extra for.

What about international organic aquaculture standards?
Other aquaculture standards have been developed, many still in draft form, throughout the world. These include Germany's Naturland, the UK's Soil Association, and Sweden's KRAV standards. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), a large umbrella organization, has also drafted organic aquaculture standards and will discuss these at their General Assembly meeting in Basel Switzerland this September. The Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization's international Codex Alimentarius Commission has finalized organic crop, livestock, processing, labeling, inspection and certification guidelines. Organic aquatic animal standards are not yet in place, however when they are, the United States will abide by them. Interestingly, if U.S. aquaculture standards are in place soon enough, they will likely influence the Codex Alimentarius drafts.

Where do we go from here?
Many organic aquaculture issues still need to be resolved. We need to continue to work through many issues. How we can best encourage and enhance biological cycles with respect to nutrient management in organic aquaculture production? How should organic standards address chemical drift? How can organic aquaculture best parallel the organic feed principles for terrestrial livestock? What is the best way to retain the integrity of the organic product from farmer to consumer? What conversion requirements will be necessary to move conventional aquaculture systems into organic systems? And how can we develop organic inspection protocols appropriate for aquaculture? Arriving at viable answers to these and other questions requires a proactive and ongoing collaboration of the aquaculture and organic sectors, NGO's, academia and government. Mac Graham, owner of Star Prairie Trout Farm is optimistic. "I truly believe that with continued communication, aquaculture will emerge as the most environmentally friendly and efficient form of agriculture, and as an ally/partner in organic and environmental issues," commented Graham following the Minnesota workshop.

The USDA's National Organic Program and the NOSB are now shifting more of their attention to aquatic animals. It will be up to the aquaculture industry to continue to advise them and to keep the momentum going towards national organic aquaculture standards. Contact Mark Keating ( for questions or concerns about the National Organic Program, or contact Deborah Brister at ISEES (612-624-7723 or for more information on actively participating in the Organic Aquaculture Working Group. One thing is certain. The best time to influence organic aquaculture standards is now, before they are finalized.

About the authors
Anne Kapuscinski is a Professor of Fisheries, Sea Grant Extension Specialist in Aquaculture and Biotechnology, and Director of ISEES at the University of Minnesota. Prior to her post at Minnesota, she worked for Weyerhauser Corp. on freshwater prawn and salmon aquaculture, worked at a salmon ocean ranching demonstration project, and obtained M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at Oregon State University. In 1997, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture awarded the USDA's highest individual award for "promoting sound public policies related to applying biotechnology to aquaculture and conserving genetic diversity in fish." Dr. Kapuscinski's research focuses on genetic aspects of aquaculture and fisheries management. Her outreach work stresses sound public policy in aquaculture and biosafety of GMOs; and she teaches a course in sustainable aquaculture. Her expertise is sought regularly by national and state governments, international organizations, the National Academy of Science, and various practitioners and observers of aquaculture, fisheries, and sustainable agriculture.

Deborah Brister is the Organic Aquaculture Project Manager for ISEES and is a research specialist in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota. Deborah has reared a variety of species including rainbow trout, tilapia, Atlantic salmon, northern pike and walleye in recirculating systems, raceways and integrated aquaculture/hydroponic systems. Deborah received a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at the University of Minnesota and her master's research (also at the U.of M.) focused on developing an environmental assessment tool for aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Her area of expertise is in aquaculture and environmental policy and will begin her Ph.D. this fall (2000) while continuing to work on organic aquaculture issues.

2000 Workshop Report (pdf format, 102 pages)