What’s the difference between organic farmed salmon and the much-demonised variety that’s kept in cages, stuffed with colours and pesticides, doomed to swim in its own faeces and prematurely slaughtered? Surprisingly little, discovers Joanna Blythman.
I’m eyeing up a fillet of farmed Scottish organic salmon and, to be honest, it doesn’t look too enticing. Its colour is pallid pinkish grey, a bit like an old sticking plaster. That doesn’t bother me too much because I’ve been told that organic salmon doesn’t contain colouring – a disputable statement, but more of that later – and that the dingy pink is just the price I have to pay for its more natural diet. What does bother me, however, is its herringbone mesh of creamy fatty veins. Palpating the uncooked flesh, it has all the floppy-flaccid muscle tone of a 20-stone couch potato. To remind myself of what wild salmon is like, I’ve bought a fillet of wild Alaskan silver salmon, not a totally fair comparison since it is a different breed, but it is enough to remind me of the wild Scottish Atlantic salmon and sea trout I ate back in July: firm-fleshed and toned like a prima ballerina.
Once in the pan, the two salmon couldn’t be more different. The farmed Scottish organic one is a nightmare to fry – it wants to fall apart like a badly built wall – while the tight-grained, orange-fleshed wild Alaskan fillet is holding its shape nicely. By now I’m not surprised to find that, in the mouth, these two salmons are chalk and cheese. The organic fish, hailed by the Soil Association as ‘the Lamborghini of fish’, tastes watery and bland with an ever-so-slightly tinny, bitter aftertaste. The wild fish is sweet and juicy. I know which one I want to eat.
It’s all very troubling. While I’m not exactly surprised that the wild salmon tasted superior, I didn’t expect the farmed organic salmon to taste quite so bad. Until recently, organic salmon has received a warm press. It has been held up as the right-on alternative to chasing after fragile stocks of wild Atlantic salmon. Ethically minded consumers tend to believe that the organic version of a foodstuff is radically different from the conventional equivalent. When we buy organic eggs, for instance, we know that they cannot have come from caged hens.
But here’s the nub of the problem with organic salmon: it doesn’t deliver the radical difference in production methods that consumers have come to expect from other categories of organic food. To make a very unsubtle joke, there just isn’t enough clear blue water between conventional salmon farming – condemned by its critics as the biggest environmental disaster to afflict the west coast of Scotland in living memory – and the organic alternative. Indeed, delve into the supposed differences between the two and the water looks rather murky; so murky, in fact, that even some long-standing advocates of organic farming won’t have any truck with it. As Iain Tolhurst, a highly respected organic grower and a key figure in the foundation of the modern British organic movement puts it: ‘If the public was given the full facts about organic salmon, they would demand something better. So-called “organic” salmon is making a mockery of organic standards.’
The organic salmon trail leads us back to the conventional salmon farms that dot the west coast of Scotland and the waters around Orkney and Shetland. In the late 1970s, salmon farming in these parts was something of a cottage industry, albeit with a get-rich-quick goldrush mentality. These days it is big business, with at least 85 per cent of production controlled by Norwegian corporations. Over the last 20 years, conventional salmon farming has earned a reputation as a dirty industry plagued with problems. Listen to its critics and the story of conventional salmon farming has consisted of an unsavoury soup whose ingredients variously include the ‘souring’ of sea lochs and rivers with uneaten feed and faeces, the parasitic sea lice attracted by large populations of farmed fish which are then passed on to wild fish, the escapees from salmon farms that interbreed with wild fish and so deprogramme them for life in the wild, and the fact that farmed salmon have been profligately eating their way through three times their weight in endangered wild fish as they are fattened up for our tables.
For at least a decade, farmed salmon has been on the thinking consumer’s ‘avoid’ list, and to add to conventional fish farmers’ woes, the ubiquity of their product along with imports of even cheaper farmed salmon from countries like Norway has seen the price fetched by their fish tumble. Now they have been bailed out by the Soil Association, a body widely thought to apply the most exacting organic standards. For five years it has dipped its toe in the controversial waters of fish farming and allowed farmers to label their fish as organic if they were raised according to a set of provisional standards. Then, in August, it decided to give full backing to organic aquaculture by adopting a permanent set. Salmon farmers are queueing up to convert to organic.
Which would be fair enough if a conventionally farmed salmon and an organic farmed salmon were very different propositions. But are they? Both operate the same basic system, where a cage, or an ‘open sea pen’ as the Soil Association prefers to call it, is stocked with artificially reared juvenile fish, which are then fattened up. Predictably, the salmon cage is a major bone of contention for farmed-salmon dissenters. ‘However you try to dress it up, you are taking a free-ranging creature genetically programmed to swim the oceans and sticking it in a cage. Organic farming doesn’t allow hens to be kept in cages even though they would actually walk only very short distances. So how can it be alright to keep a truly wild creature such as a salmon in one?’ asks Iain Tolhurst.
The Soil Association’s aquaculture specialist, Peter Bridson, doesn’t see the problem. He believes that the salmon cage is a ‘natural environment’, an argument dismissed by other respected organic figures, such as Lawrence Woodward, CEO of Elm Farm Research Centre and a former head of the Soil Association. ‘Caged salmon,’ says Woodward, ‘have no relationship to the aquatic environment, other than that the cage is suspended in water … this is not a living ecological system.’
To be fair, organic fish are less tightly packed than their conventional equivalents. A conventional farmed salmon cage contains up to 70,000 fish. The Soil Association imposes no upper limit on the numbers of organic fish that can be kept in a cage, a departure from its standards for other farmed animals where flock and herd sizes are capped on welfare grounds. In practice, organic-fish farmers keep up to 30,000 fish in one cage, the equivalent of a bathful of water per fish, hardly the wild salmon’s total freedom to roam the oceans. Nevertheless, the Soil Association is ‘satisfied that these densities optimise the health and wellbeing of the fish’.
A detailed examination of organic aquaculture standards might dismay shoppers who believe that the word ‘organic’ stands for the avoidance of pesticides, additives and veterinary medicines. Organic salmon farmers do use colouring – albeit only for their juvenile fish – in the form of phaffia, an industrially produced yeast that contains naturally high levels of astaxanthin, the colouring used by conventional fish farmers. They also feed added vitamins and minerals, (both natural and synthetic are currently acceptable), and ‘binders’ such as wheat flour, none of which figure in the diet of a wild fish.
Uncanny similarities to conventional salmon farming don’t stop there. Organic fish farmers are at liberty to use many of the same chemicals routinely employed by their conventional equivalents such as the pesticide-based, commercial anti-sea lice treatments, cypermethrin and emamectin benzoate. These can be used up to twice in the organic salmon’s 30-month life even though there is a body of research to show that such treatments can have negative effects on sea creatures and the marine ecosystem. Organic salmon farmers can also treat their fish with up to three courses of veterinary medicines in this same period. Indeed the lifespans of organic and non-organic salmon are remarkably similar. A conventionally farmed salmon fattened in a cage will be slaughtered at two years old, its organic equivalent at two-and-a-half years. At the same age, a wild salmon will be only six inches long and weigh a few ounces. Typically a wild salmon spends at least three years in a river and two-and-half-years at sea before it reaches maturity. In the wild, salmon live for up to 16 years.
Another unusual feature of the Scottish organic salmon scene is that inspections to ensure adherence to the Soil Association’s aquaculture standards are carried out by Food Certification (Scotland) Ltd, an organisation set up by conventional salmon farmers which also polices the conventional salmon-farming industry. In land-based agriculture, the Soil Association has been punctilious about using either its own or outside inspectors whom it regards as being rigorously independent of the conventional farming industry. Food Certification (Scotland) Ltd currently has 10 members on its governing board, five of whom used to be, or still are, involved in the conventional salmon-farming industry. Peter Bridson insists that since Food Certification (Scotland) Ltd is a professional, independent body there is no reason why there should be any conflict of interest in the Soil Association using it.
Environmentalists who worry about the release of toxic chemicals in the marine environment may also be concerned to learn that, to limit or prevent the fungal growths that are likely to attack large concentrations of fish, organic-fish farmers can use the chlorine-based Chloramine-T and formalin. Formalin is a preservative and disinfectant, commonly used in fish farming worldwide, and approvated in Britain by the government’s Pesticides Safety Directorate, despite being described as a ‘known human carcinogen’ by the World Health Organisation. But, like many commonly used treatments to limit or prevent disease among large concentrations of farmed animals, the chemicals don’t always work. This is why sea lice from fish farms settling on passing wild fish continue to adversely affect wild-salmon stocks. Major General Seymour Monro, executive director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, a body that works to stem the decline of wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout says: ‘They shouldn’t be calling these fish organic. From the point of view of escapees from salmon farms interbreeding with wild fish, and the potential of farmed fish to carry infestations of sea lice to wild fish, then there is no big difference between organic and conventionally farmed fish.’
The organic salmon farmers do appear to have cleaned up the conventional salmon-farming act by insisting that their fish meal comes not from stocks of endangered fish such as sand eel and blue whiting, but from the filleting waste (blood, guts, tails, heads) of fish harvested for human consumption. However, the Soil Association’s Peter Bridson admits that, at present, ‘we don’t have much control over where this waste comes from’, and so the Association has established a partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquascot, a long-established salmon-farming company, to ensure that, by 2010, all fish meal and oil used is produced from waste products of fisheries independently certified by the MSC as sustainable.
This doesn’t alter the fact that the stocks of fish to make oil and meal are running out. One solution to this thorny problem currently being considered by the Soil Association is that organic fish farmers could use feed containing up to 25 per cent of organically grown oil seed. This proposition has received a stormy reception from some organic growers, who fear that productive land will be planted with monocultures of organic oilseed rape, a notoriously disease-prone crop.
The Soil Association’s ambitions for organic aquaculture don’t stop with redesigning the salmon’s diet. Until recently, it has been unable to come up with an answer to the argument that salmon farms, organic or otherwise, pollute the sea bed by forming a thick layer of undigested feed and faeces under the cages. Peter Kindersley, another respected organic farmer who resigned as a trustee of the Soil Association over its certification of organic salmon, calculates that an organic salmon farm can produce a quantity of untreated sewage equivalent to the population of a small town.
In response, the Soil Association is touting the solution of ‘integrated aquaculture’, of growing edible seaweeds and bivalve shellfish, such as oysters, scallops and mussels, under the cages where they will fatten up on the effluent. To shellfish growers, who see clean, high-quality water as indispensable to their continued existence, this is an outlandish, even reckless idea. Bivalves easily become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria that can cause serious, even fatal food poisoning. Peter Bridson is nevertheless upbeat and optimistic about integrated aquaculture, portraying it as the marine equivalent of land-based mixed farming. ‘In Canada, research has shown that mussels grown using salmon-farm waste were preferred in taste tests because their meat had a richer quality,’ he insists. But selling consumers the idea of seafood fattened on salmon farm effluent, organic or otherwise, is surely going to be a hard one.
The Soil Association tries to justify its involvement with the farming of carnivorous fish like salmon, sea trout and cod by saying that wild-fish stocks have collapsed and that aquaculture is ‘environmentally the better option’. For refusniks like Iain Tolhurst, this amounts to writing off the sea as a food source. ‘It’s like saying, “We’ve made a mess of the planet, so let’s move to the moon,”‘ he says.
Most environmentalists believe all efforts should first be channelled into protecting and supporting stocks of wild fish through schemes monitored by bodies like the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies fisheries it deems to be sustainable. Long-standing fish-farming critics such as the leading angling writer and expert Bruce Sandison, also believe that fish farms, organic or otherwise, will have to be closed down or moved onshore into closed containment systems if wild fish are to flourish. ‘On the east coast of Scotland and on rivers like the Tweed and the Spey where netting has been stopped and there are no fish farms, wild salmon stocks are reasonably healthy. On the west coast, rivers and lochs that once teemed with wild salmon and sea trout are now virtually devoid of wild fish because the salmon farms have devastated them.’
Where does all this leave consumers who want to keep on eating salmon? The product known as ‘organic salmon’ is definitely preferable to the conventional fish-farmed equivalent, but that’s not saying much. A better alternative is to buy the reasonably affordable wild salmon from Alaska that is certified by the MSC, or the more limited, and necessarily more expensive stocks of Scottish and Irish wild salmon when available, viewing them as a very precious and special rare treat. As a rough price guide, for fresh fillets you can expect to pay around £13 a kilo for conventional farmed, £15 a kilo for wild Alaskan, £15-18 for Scottish organic and £20-30 for wild Scottish or Irish in season. In search of health-giving oily fish that are cheaper and reasonably plentiful, then we must turn our attention to other species like mackerel and herring. One way or another, if we want to eat truly sustainable fish, then we must face up to the fact that the days when we routinely ate cheap salmon as a staple food are numbered. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Observer Food Monthly, Sunday 22 October 2006