Eat them before they eat everything
August 7th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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A growing number of conservationists are advocating the consumption of invasive species in an effort to fend off environmental destruction.

Invasive species, as defined by the USDA’s National Agricultural Library, aren't native to the local ecosystem and may cause economic, environmental or medical harm. They can exist in many forms: plants, animals or even microorganisms.

Many of the invasive plants, such as dandelion and purslane, were originally introduced by settlers for medicinal or ornamental reasons, while many of the invasive animals like Asian carp and green iguanas were brought in as food sources, pets or for pest control.

Mongooses, one example, were originally imported from Southeast Asia to control rodent and snake populations in Caribbean and Hawaiian agricultural fields.  The Hawaii Invasive Species Partnerships has since estimated that the species causes $50 million in damages each year in Puerto Rico and Hawaii alone.

From feral hogs running wild in Texas to lionfish eating their way through the Gulf of Mexico to kudzu, whose nickname “the vine that ate the South” speaks for itself, the United States is facing an invasion of the natural resource snatchers.

While kudzu may have swallowed up the South, conservationists and food activists are encouraging American consumers to bite back.

“Why not combine the growing locavore movement with an ecological awareness and try and reduce some of these species?” says Joe Roman, conservation biologist, author and editor of EatTheInvaders.org. “It’s unlikely we’re ever going to eat them to extinction but we can reduce the numbers that are there and also get an excellent meal.”

Because these species typically won’t encounter natural predators, it’s primarily up to humans to control or remove the invaders. Some managerial methods involve mechanical control, like digging or mowing, or chemical control, like pesticides and herbicides. Or, people could eat them.

There are, of course, major hurdles with upping the consumption of invasive species. For one, most could use an image overhaul.

“Here in America, we’ve raised two generations of consumers to think that only luxury cut from the center of the animal is what we should eat,” says Andrew Zimmern, the host of “Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel. “And only from three or four animals, I might add.”

Nutria, for example, is a giant water-born rodent – but many chefs compare the taste to that of a succulent rabbit. It’s all about consumer perception.

“You start to stretch our food imagination, we can take it in sorts of great directions,” says Zimmern.

“Think of a species that now shows up on menus that people wouldn’t have dreamed of eating maybe a decade or two ago. There is certainly an ‘ick factor’ we’re going to have to get over to promote this,” says Roman.

Chef Bun Lai, at his restaurant Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut, actively pursues this sort of rebranding.

Miya’s offers an invasive species menu, with ingredients like European green crabs, lionfish, knotweed and wild swans, that threaten the local ecosystems.

“We hope that this will do a few things. First of all, it could potentially curb the dominance of invasive species in the ecosystem. Secondly, it would provide the seafood industry a greater supply of native seafood and reduce the stresses on those populations already fished,” Lai explains on the restaurant’s website. “Finally, we hope that it would encourage greater balance in the inter-regenerative relationship between man and the oceans.”

As with any strategy though, there are always risks. First, not all invasive species are safe for human consumption. Providing educational resources about how to prepare certain species (for lionfish, remove the poisonous spines) and what is and is not safe to forage is crucial.

Secondly, marketing an invasive species could encourage less scrupulous entrepreneurs to move these species where they didn’t already exist because they are potentially lucrative, Roman says. That could easily backfire and spread the species’ destruction even further.

Then, there are concerns of depleting the population, which Zimmern adds, wouldn’t be a bad thing because, after all, they’re not naturally supposed to be there.

“Let’s get to the point where they’re extinct or nearly extinct and then they’re a manageable resource. Let’s farm them, let’s do other things with it, but we can’t just let these invasive species be out in the wild,” he says.

Although population control is obviously at the forefront of the invasive species battle and consumer appeal is only part of the invasive solution, Zimmern says there is another opportunity: take them out of the ecosystem and find a way to feed hungry people.

“The biggest problem with the invasive species argument - in terms of not eating them - is people are hungry, these are good foods,” he says.

With protein’s high expense and one in six people living in hunger, Zimmern advocates in collecting invasive species and using that meat to feed children, seniors, people in the jail system and other people living below the poverty line.

“I will tell you right now, as someone that’s had a bologna sandwich in jail, I would prefer to eat nutria every day of the week,” he says.

Spaghetti and Periwinkles (Snails)
Serves 4 to 6
Used with permission from EatTheInvaders.org

About 2 cups of periwinkles in shells
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups plum tomatoes from the garden, or a 20 oz. can of imported Italian plum tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti
Grated Parmesan cheese
Italian bread

Wash the snails in cold water. Add periwinkles to a pot of boiling water, along with a small handful of salt to shrink and toughen the meat. (This eases their removal.) The snails are ready when the operculum falls off.

Remove the periwinkles from their shells with a nutpick or pin. (This can be time consuming, find an assistant if you can.)

Sauté garlic in olive oil. Add parsley and tomatoes, and cook for about 30 minutes.

Boil four quarts of water. Add spaghetti, and remove when soft but still firm to the bite. At the same time that you add the spaghetti, add the periwinkles to the sauce.

Mix the pasta and sauce in a warm bowl. Serve hot, with crusty Italian bread and grated Parmesan cheese.

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Filed under: Andrew Zimmern • Celebrity Chefs • Content Partner • Eatocracy TV • Environment • Favorites • Invasive Species • Make • News • Recipes • Think • TV-CNN Newsroom • Video


soundoff (298 Responses)
  1. Coach fitness

    It's amazing how one spices can destroy everything. Asian carp are awful. It's always our fault.

    January 29, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
  2. Relictus

    Consuming invasive species is a fantastic idea! Consumption is what America does best – and have you seen the price of fish, lately? Catfish is $3 a pound in my hometown.

    October 19, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  3. Vegan and in your face.

    The irony is that humans gave themselves the right to invade everywhere and consume everything, yet now they're "scared" and calling other creature "invading" because they are peacefully living their lives out there. What society is doing is punishing animals for the gift of life. If there really is a god, it stopped being perfect the day it ceated humans. Biggest mistake ever.

    Future generations will be so ashamed.

    March 12, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • TigerianWinter

      Well, all self loathing aside, we do have a responsibility to help preserve our eco system. Some things we are good at, some things not so much. I think it was Saigon that had a MASSIVE rat infestation. The populace after trying to quell the flood, they decided to eat them. Good times had by all.....except the rats.

      Also, I did notice that the whole Chinese Beetle thing is under control. I guess birds decided they were delicious.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  4. strange creatureschupacabra

    hello another very nice post i really love reading your storys

    January 2, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Florist

    This is a little ironic, considering that kudzu was originally imported as a cheap, fast-growing food source. And no, it hasn't "swallowed up the South." I pretty rarely see it outside of the times I've driven through the Gulf area.

    August 20, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  6. gina@cateror.com

    Interesting idea. Now all that needs to happen is for locavore restaurants to pick it up. Can't quite see it on the casual entertaining front though.

    August 14, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  7. cole

    jeesshh!! hell yeah, people should take advantage of this "surplus" food source. my gosh , people always joke about whats in Chinese food, they are always popular and are everywhere. somebody should get wise and whip up some little restaurant franchise of the sort.

    August 14, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  8. Al

    Got a recipe for Japanese beetles?

    August 11, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  9. I'm Hungry

    Anyone know whats the Lionfishs favorite meal? Any particular favorite, say if two or three different species of food fish were avaiable which one would the Lionfish pick?

    August 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  10. memberoflife

    I love dandelion! Get it young and it is good in a salad. Or when it is a little bigger but not blooming boil it with water and olive oil and some garlic and it is like spinach! and dandelion wine!!!!!

    August 9, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • reen b

      Right on! I grew up eating cooked baby dandelion greens right out of the front yard, with butter, salt, pepper and a dash of vinegar...yum! Or the fiddleheads we'd find alongside of the road. Now that I'm in TX people pay good money at Whole Foods/Central Market for those! Here the biggest invasive species problem is feral hogs but people can hunt and eat them year round. Don't know if I would go there though...

      October 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Rational

    Sounds good but there needs to be an incentive for people to eat lionfish. Maybe have a professional food reviewer give some idea on what type of lionfish foods are like in taste,texture,health, and etc. The taster giving us reason why it's a good idea to eat them. And compare them to other seafood in the category and claiming they are cheaper. I imagine since there isn't a high demand for lionfish and an abundance[high supply] that would mean a cheaper meal.

    August 9, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • Rational

      Maybe even a government sponsored chef on Food Network showing how to prepare lionfish so it can be eaten safely.

      August 9, 2012 at 2:05 am |
  12. drowlord

    off-topic politics invade unrelated articles.

    August 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  13. EricTheEngr

    I'll eat anything that smells good, tastes good, and isn't people. If nutria, lionfish, black tiger shrimp, or Asian carp showed up at my grocery store for 79 cents a pound, I'd stock my freezer and fire up the grill. And kudzu sounds like a prime candidate for biofuel feedstock.

    August 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Lee

      "Like" all over the place. Food sources and energy sources found in the category "FAIL!" I don't know the economics of this concept, but I like it.

      August 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • dtmb

      Here in the south, kudzu took over because livestock WOULDN'T eat it.

      August 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  14. c s

    This article about eating invasive species is absolutely correct. In Florida, two species come to mind. Feral pigs and foriegn pythons.

    Feral pigs are ruinous to the Everglades. Since they are wild, the can be probably be considered to be organic which opens a large and lucrative market for them. Southern Florida has a huge number of restaurants; it is time for the chefs in Florida to make a concerted effort at using this source of meat that is wild, organic, nutritious and tasty. People already eat pigs and so using them will require little persuasion. Setting up a system to harvest them and getting them quickly to the market is the key.

    Foreign pythons (like the Burmese and others) will take more effort. Probably the best way is to have cooking contest on the food channels to show how to prepare them. Once they become a hot item on the food channels, then developing a market for them will be much easier.

    Unfortunately invasive species cannot be stopped; only controlled.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Native Floridi Ann

      Few things are more invasive to an ecology than the dreaded snowbird. They come down during tourist season, but we can't shoot them to thin out the herd. Pity.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
      • berbes

        enjoy the revenue though, annie. in this day to make jokes about shooting people? sad lady. i thought fat people were generally jolly, or so they say.

        August 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
        • wsj

          Oh berbes, you are one of those fatties who comes down every year and thinks they own the joint because they tip 5%. You need to lighten up and please stay out of the left lane when you are here.

          August 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
      • 1492

        The Florida Seminoles thought the same way about the Spaniards. Cortez the Killer was quite the tourist. You claim to be a native but let's point one thing out. Because a python hatched in Florida doesn't make it native. The same goes with you.

        August 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
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