Opinion: Lithothamnion sp. Coralline Algae Is NOT “Ag,” Should NOT Be Allowed as “Organic” If We Care About The Planet.

school of fish on corals
Lithothamnion is a genus of coralline marine red algae containing calcareous deposits within its cell walls. Lithothamnion is also referred to as “calcified seaweed,” “seaweed-derived calcium,” “maerl,” and “calcified maerl.” Ground Lithothamnion is used in processed products as a source of calcium.

March 12, 2021: The USDA released a memo to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to request that they make recommendations to the industry regarding whether or not Lithothamnion calcareus algae species may be certified organic. It’s unclear why the ruling is needed since the NOP informed at least one certifying agency prior to 2008 that Lithothamnion sp. were considered non-agricultural and could not be certified as organic.

However, there are currently 2 operations (one in Iceland and one in Brazil) who are certified organic for the “wild harvest” of Lithothamnion species and seven other operations certified for the handling of the dried and powdered product often marketed as “algae calcium.” The fact that these species are members of the communities that make up coral reefs and that they’re harvested in ways that most thinking people would object to often doesn’t find it’s way into their marketing. Read the USDA’s full memo here:


It is also unclear how two certifying agencies could have certified the wild harvest of coralline algae as certified organic given that it violates some key organic regulations:

First, it violates 7 CFR §205.200, which requires organic operations to maintain or improve natural resources–including water resources. Corraline algae species like Lithothamnion are “harvested” from the ocean floor via dredging–a process that kicks up huge amounts of sediment, increasing the turbidity of ocean waters. That sediment is then deposited on any nearby live, growing coral reefs–smothering them. Ocean warming is already triggering coral bleaching events on a global scale, which may slow the growth or even kill coral reefs entirely. A practice like dredging the ocean floors for Lithothamnion only adds to the profusion of deadly threats against the world’s coral reefs. It cannot be regarded as maintaining or improving water resources when it damages and kills corals and the fish and marine mammals that depend on coral reefs for survival.

Second, it’s a gross violation of 7 CFR §205.207(b) which states, “A wild crop must be harvested in a manner that ensures such harvesting or gathering will not be destructive to the environment and will sustain the growth and production of the wild crop.” The practice of ocean floor dredging does not meet this burden. It is a destructive and unsustainable practice; it’s antithetical to the pursuit of biodiversity–one of the aims of the nature resources practice standards in the National Organic Program Final Rule.

Third, Lithothamnion coralline algae should never be regarded as “agricultural” because they are a non-renewable resource. By their nature, products of agriculture are renewable resources. Lithothamnion coralline algae species live between 50 and 100 years, but they grow only one millimeter per year. This makes them more akin to old growth forests–vital reservoirs of biodiversity–than to an agricultural crop that can be regrown in a single season. Furthermore, the practice of “dredging” is essentially a mining practice, not a method of harvesting products of agriculture. Picture dredging a river for gold and how fundamentally different that is from combining a field of grain.

Fourth, the European Union’s organic program, with whom the US organic program has trade equivalency, has already ruled that Lithothamnion species are non-agricultural and cannot be certified organic.

Finally, consumers expect that certified organic products are produced with sustainability in mind–in deference to and in concert with natural processes. I can’t think of many practices which show as little respect for Mother Nature as dredging the ocean floor for species that are vital to the planet’s survival, yet are already under attack on multiple fronts. The soul of “organic” is at stake if we allow coralline algae species dredged from the ocean floor to continue to be marketed as “certified organic and wild harvested.”

While we may not be able to stop the practice of ocean dredging for coral today, we have a unique opportunity on April 5th, 20th, and 22nd to stop it being marketed as an organic, wild harvested product. I hope you’ll choose to participate and lend your voice and opinion to this very important debate.

How to Participate

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) invites the public to submit written comments and/or provide oral comments at its Spring 2021 business meeting. Please note: In order to be considered during the Spring 2021 meeting, written public comments must be received by 11:59 p.m. ET, Monday, April 5, 2021. Learn more about the Spring 2021 NOSB meeting here:


Oral comment registration is full. But if you would like to be added to a waitlist, please email michelle.arsenault@usda.gov by no later than April 16, 2021. The Board will hear oral comments during the following times via Zoom: Tuesday, April 20, and Thursday, April 22, 2021, from 12:00 – 5:00 p.m. Eastern