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.
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)
About 2 cups of periwinkles in shells
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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