The British body that certifies food in the UK as organic has been accused of misleading consumers over its labelling of Scottish farmed salmon.
Thirty charities, conservation and community organisations, including WildFish, the Pesticide Action Network and Blue Marine Foundation, say the negative environmental impacts of the industry in Scotland “run completely counter” to the principles of the Soil Association’s promotion of healthy, humane and sustainable food.
In an open letter to the association, which plans to update its organic fish farming standards, the groups call for the removal of its certification of Scottish salmon and trout farms, as “unacceptable greenwashing of an unsustainable industry”.
In December, the broadcaster and presenter Chris Packham called for a halt to the growth of salmon farms in Scotland, as official figures suggested farmed salmon mortality had hit record levels in 2023. Packham, the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), said the industry was “catastrophic” for fish welfare and Scotland’s environment.
Salmon farms certified as organic by the Soil Association are required to show how they will minimise their impact on the aquatic environment, and maintain lower population densities than those required by other standards, including the RSPCA standard.
Rachel Mulrenan, WildFish’s Scotland director, said: “So-called ‘organic’ Scottish salmon is a misnomer. The fish are raised in the same way as all Scottish farmed salmon – in open-net cages, where all the waste from the farm flows straight into the surrounding lochs and sounds, including faeces and uneaten feed.”
She said that salmon farms certified organic were permitted to use highly toxic chemicals, which could kill surrounding wildlife. They also used wild-caught fish to produce feed and for parasite control, with unknown environmental impacts, she claimed.
Intensive salmon farming creates a breeding ground for parasites including sea lice and other diseases and can threaten wild salmon populations, if escapees breed with wild fish.
A report published by WildFish last year, Responsibly Farmed?, said one Soil Association organic certified salmon farm had applied multiple treatments of the chemical pesticide deltamethrin, which is highly toxic to marine species.
The groups said that the updated standards for fish farms proposed by the Soil Association in its consultation continued to permit toxic chemicals such as deltamethrin and did not address concerns that high mortality rates were “indicative of an unsustainable industry”.
More than 160 chefs and restaurants, as well as 50 community groups, charities and NGOs have joined WildFish’s Off the table campaign to remove farmed salmon from their menus.
Claire Mercer Nairne, the owner of supporting Perthshire restaurant The Meikleour Arms, said: “Many well-meaning restaurants serve farmed salmon because of reassuring organic certification. Organic for most people means better for the environment, but unfortunately in this instance that could not be further from the truth.”
A Soil Association spokesperson said farms with the organic logo must follow “strict rules” to minimise environmental impact and ensure animal welfare, and must prove they take action when problems occur.
“We recognise there is still much work to be done to further improve fish farming, and that is why we are working with the sector to drive improvements forward.”
The spokesperson, who said the association certified 20 fish farms in the UK, said their rules were having a wider impact, as they were being adopted by the non-organic sector.
The Soil Association was concerned about the impacts of chemical parasite treatments, such as deltamethrin, and its use as a medicine was “very strictly controlled”, said the spokesperson, who added that farms must demonstrate it was being used a last resort to protect the welfare of the fish, with minimal impact on the environment.
Tavish Scott, the chief executive of Salmon Scotland, said: “Scotland’s salmon farmers consistently meet the highest international standards and third-party assurance – including organic certification – will continue to play an important part in ensuring Scottish salmon remains the best in the world. We won’t let that global success be put at risk from a handful of urban-based activist groups.”