(Beyond Pesticides, May 11, 2012) The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) has released the final version of the Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard, a non-binding system for certifying farmed fish outside of official Canadian organic standards. The final standard is a revised form of a draft standard first proposed in 2010, which was subject to severe criticism from environmental advocates. The standard has been developed independently of Canadian organic standards for agriculture and is not currently included in official government regulations regarding organic agriculture. The release comes less than two weeks before the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will meet to discuss, among other topics, the ongoing process of developing a standard for organic aquaculture in the United States.
The new standard was developed by under the auspices of the Canadian National Standards Board and is purely voluntary. In Canada, as in the U.S., fish are are explicitly excluded from federal organic regulations. This means that there can be no official, government-approved organic fish in either country currently. However, this also means that there is nothing stopping private entities from creating their own standard for certifying fish as “organic” according to whatever definition they choose. The fish can then be labelled as organic, but cannot display the organic seal. Thus, any products obtaining this certification remain essentially unregulated and should not be interpreted as having the same level of organic status as products bearing the organic seal.
To qualify for certification under the new standard, Canadian aquaculture products must have been grown on farms operating in accordance with organic aquatic farming methods established by the new standard. As with organic agricultural systems, farms are inspected by third-party certifying bodies to ensure that the standard has been followed. However, certifiers are under no obligation to evaluate any aquaculture system seeking to obtain organic status under the new standard, as they are with organic agricultural operations. The new standard does not currently fall under the scope of Canada’s Organic Products Regulations or Canada’s trade equivalencies for organic products with the U.S. or European Union.
The Canadian standard, while environmental advocates say that it is an improvement over the proposed draft standard, remains controversial and continues to be the target of intense criticism from some public interest groups. The central problem that critics have with the standard is that it allows fish from open pen systems (net pens), where fish are managed in a netted enclosure in an open body of water, to be certified as organic. The concerns stem partly from the fact that any materials added to, or waste flowing from, such a system would then freely flow into the surrounding body of water and any other connected surface water or groundwater. The conservation group Living Oceans Society, which has a seat on the CGSB aquaculture committee and voted against the proposal, said that the new standard “has as many holes as a net pen,” according to the Vancouver Sun.
The original draft of the standard proposed to allow the use of such materials as antibiotics and parasiticides, with no reduction in levels from what is already allowed for use in conventional aquaculture. This prompted an outcry from environmental and organic advocates who asserted that organic should have a higher level of environmental integrity and stronger standards than conventional production. The new standard does away with antibiotics, but retains an allowance for the limited use of certain parasiticides, as long as there is a system plan in place to reduce the potential for parasite issues and then, only under veterinary supervision. Other specific elements of the new standard prohibit the use of antibiotics, herbicides and genetically modified organisms. The standard sets measurable requirements for practices that minimize the impact of waste. These include defining stocking rates, cleaning procedures and the cleaning and feed materials that must be used.
Despite the specific requirements outlined in the standard, there remain still more criticisms of the final version from environmental groups. One of the more notable concerns regards the standard’s allowance of non-organic feed for certain fish. Current Canadian standards for land based livestock require 100% organic feed for all certified animals and environmental groups contend that this same standard should be used in aquatic systems.
In addition to certifying open pen systems, closed systems will also be allowed to obtain organic certification. Closed systems usually consist of an artificial enclosure of some kind separating the pen from the surrounding environment. Environmental advocates generally consider such systems to be more environmentally sound and more closely aligned with organic principles than open systems, due to the ability to more closely control what goes in and out of the system and the lower potential for contamination of surrounding waterways. They also minimize the potential for fish to be exposed to contaminants that may already be in the waterway as well as prevent the fish, which may not be native, from escaping into open water and affecting the surrounding ecosystem.
Net pen systems will be open for certification within a year. Products from closed pen systems will not be certifiable for 36 months, to allow for transition time.
Some public interest advocates are worried that the development of private standards such as this one will undermine efforts to develop a more environmentally sound federally sanctioned organic aquaculture standard, both in Canada, as well the U.S. This standard could be seen as a natural precursor to any government-developed regulation outlining an official organic aquaculture standard. However, this does not have to be the case. Although it is a pre-existing system, there remain many concerns and criticisms of standards such as this and there is no reason that any federally developed standard would have to use the new standard as a baseline.
In the U.S., the NOSB has gone through a lengthy process in developing a draft organic aquaculture standard involving several proposed standards and numerous rounds of public comment. The latest draft would include paths to certification for both closed systems as well as open pens, though would involve separate criteria for each type of system. The specifics continue to be worked out; however, criticisms remain on this side of the border, as well. In public comment submitted in preparation for the upcoming NOSB meeting, public interest groups, including Food and Water Watch and the Center for Food Safety again strongly urged the board to stay clear of the environmental pitfalls that have plagued the Canadian standard, such as allowing the certification of open net pens and lax requirements regarding feed sources. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ comments to the NOSB on the November 2011 Aquaculture Materials Update.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
5/23/12: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the voluntary, non-governmental nature of the new Canadian standard.