Environment groups call out Soil Association’s ‘organic’ standard

More than 30 Scottish community groups, UK NGOs and international campaigning organisations have joined forces in calling on the charity Soil Association to stop certifying Scottish farmed salmon as ‘organic’.

The open letter, signed by groups including WildFish, Coastal Communities Network and Blue Marine Foundation, was sent yesterday to the CEOs of the Soil Association and Soil Association Certification in response to the organisation’s public consultation on its updated organic fish farming standard.

Read the open letter here.

It highlights the negative environment, welfare and sustainability issues linked to the salmon farming industry in Scotland, and argues that these impacts are fundamentally at odds with organic farming. 

“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.

Rachel Mulrenan, Scotland Director at WildFish

Ms Mulrenan continued: “Organic’ salmon farms are permitted to still use highly toxic chemicals, which can kill surrounding wildlife; they still use wild-caught fish to produce feed and for parasite control (typically, wrasse used as cleaner fish), with unknown environmental impacts; and they still allow for the build-up of sea lice parasites, which can spread to, and prove fatal for, wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout.”

Severely diseased farmed salmon with sea lice on Soil Association certified Mowi’s Torridon farm, 2023. ©Viva.

The Soil Association’s ‘organic’ standard

The Soil Association developed its organic standard for farmed fish (including farmed salmon) in 2006. The move prompted a former chairman of the Association’s Standards Committee to state that “salmon farming in cages has nothing at all to do with organic principles”.[1]

Soil Association Certification currently certifies 23 salmon farms in Scotland – 14 seawater sites, and 9 freshwater sites. The permitted use of toxic chemicals on certified farms is of particular concern to environmental groups – including formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical that was used by at least two certified farms in 2023.[2]

In September 2023, WildFish published a report on certification which found that schemes such as Soil Association Organic are potentially misleading consumers on the environmental and welfare credentials of certified farmed salmon.

The report, Responsibly Sourced?, detailed the permitted use of chemical pesticides on Soil Association Organic certified salmon farms, citing one organic certified farm that had applied multiple treatments with the chemical pesticide Deltamethrin.[3]

Due to the open-net structure of seawater salmon farms, Deltamethrin is released after use into the surrounding water, damaging seabed health, and potentially killing lobsters up to 39km² around the farm.[4]

The WildFish report was released with undercover footage shot on a farm certified as ‘organic’ by the Soil Association, which showed salmon suffering from deformities and disease.[5] Since publication of the report, the Soil Association has confirmed in correspondence with WildFish that the farm remains organic certified.

Chefs and restaurants move away from open-net farmed salmon

Concerns have long been raised about the negative environmental, welfare and sustainability impacts of Scotland’s salmon farming industry, and there is a growing call across the UK and internationally for the hospitality and retail sector to move away from open-net farmed salmon on account of these issues.

More than 160 chefs and restaurants, as well as 50 community groups, charities and NGOs, are supporting WildFish’s Off the table campaign, which asks chefs and restaurants to take farmed salmon off their menus.

Claire Mercer Nairne, owner of supporting Perthshire restaurant 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. Organic or not, it’s time to take farmed salmon off the table”

Ms Mulrenan concluded: “As stated in the open letter, if a food production system cannot balance environmental impacts with fish welfare, without using harmful chemicals, plundering marine ecosystems or using physical treatments which in turn can prove fatal for the farmed salmon themselves, this is not a sustainable food production system, and is absolutely not a food production system that should be endorsed by the Soil Association.”

To find out more about Off the table, visit: offthetable.org.uk

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5409434.stm

[2] For details see Notes to Editors

[3] https://wildfish.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Responsibly-Farmed-Investigating-the-certification-of-Scottish-farmed-salmon.pdf. For further case studies see Notes to Editors

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749120302451

[5] https://wildfish.org/latest-news/certification-of-farmed-salmon/

Notes to Editors

Case studies – chemical use on certified organic farms

NB: all farms can be found on the Soil Association certification checker: https://www.soilassociation.org/certification/check-for-organic-certification/organic-certificate-checker/ (screenshots available on request).

Formalin (formaldehye)

Landcatch Natural Selection – Inverkerry Hatchery: A health investigation carried out by the Fish Health Inspectorate in October 2023 documented the use of formalin (a formaldehyde solution) on the site following vaccination of the fish.(https://freesalmon.is/inspections/2023-0476_FS0265.pdf)

Cooke Aquaculture – Cairndow Hatchery: Reported use of Aquacen (active ingredient formaldehyde) on the farm in the w/c 19th October 2023. (https://www.gov.scot/publications/fish-health-inspectorate-mortality-information/)


Organic Sea Harvest – Culnacnoc salmon farm: Treatment with Alphamax (active ingredient deltamethrin) 18/07/2023 to 21/07/2023 whole site due to caligus problems. (https://freesalmon.is/inspections/2023-0335_FS1343.pdf)

Mowi Scotland – Loch Harport: Fish health Inspectorate report 17th May 2023. Treated with Paramove (active ingredient hydrogen peroxide) on the 10th, 14th and 15th May 2023. Deltamethrin treatment 23rd and 24th April 2023 for caligus (a type of parasitic sea lice). (https://freesalmon.is/inspections/2023-0180_FS0247.pdf)

For more information about Off the table see: https://offthetable.org.uk/

WildFish (formerly known as Salmon & Trout Conservation) is a conservation charity working to protect wild fish and their waters. We receive no government money and rely on the donations of our supporters. Using science and the law our dedicated team campaigns to influence government policy, industrial practice, and individual behaviour. Our goal is the measurable improvement of the state of the water environment so we can enjoy healthier wild fish stocks, improved biodiversity and less pollution in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. www.wildfish.org

The Meikleour Arms: established in 1820 by the River Tay, this iconic Inn has been in the same Franco Scottish farming family ever since. The talented team serves simple, good country food with a definite “field to fork” philosophy. Produce comes from their land, neighbouring estates and their in-house butchery, with strong emphasis on seasonality, best farming practice and sustainability. The owners support several environmental charities and farmed salmon has never been on the menu. https://www.meikleourarms.co.uk/