A Way out: The case for eating invasive species 

Words by Jennie Wang with art by Sofia Mona

People’s voracious and seemingly insatiable appetites have eaten their way through species: Atlantic cod, bison and Pismo clams, to name a few depleting examples. Meanwhile, there are 4300 invasive types of wildlife in the United States alone, and globally, invasive species have caused over $1.3 trillion in damage. Simple intuition may lead some to believe that it is possible to eat our way out of invasive species in the same way we’ve eaten others—but the situation at hand is more complex.  

An invasive species refers to any species that has been introduced by humans into a non-native habitat and whose presence results in economic or ecological damage. The formal study of invasive species first gained traction in the 1990s as globalisation fuelled the movement of plants and animals across the world. Consequently, this spurred the homogenocene, a new biological era, whereby ecosystems have experienced a loss in diversity and abundance. Not to mention, invaders are currently the second-leading cause of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction.  

Although invasive species wreak havoc on native ecosystems, many are not only edible but are in fact delicious to the human palate. For one, garlic mustard—which now plagues much of Canada and the United States—makes for a delicious addition to pesto despite its roots, which leach a toxic chemical that makes the surrounding soil unhabitable to other plants. Or consider kudzu, a vine native to Asia that was initially introduced to the American South during the Great Depression to combat erosion but now strangles trees and blocks sunlight from lower-lying plants. While a menace to its soil mates, it could find a welcome at the end of your meal: a punchy kudzu blossom sorbet ? Perhaps you find yourself somewhere in Britain, where Japanese knotweed is classified as controlled waste and failure to contain a known infestation on your property can get you charged under the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act. But its rhubarb-like taste and texture make for an excellent pairing with strawberry in a pie. The examples are endless: wild fennel that populates abandoned lots, luscious black tiger shrimp in Texas, massive concussion-inducing silver carp, now locked away in the frozen-food aisle under the form of fish cakes.  

Another notable invasive candidate for consumption is the red lionfish, which plagues the Atlantic. First recorded off the coast of Florida in 1985, the origins of its uninvited stay have been traced back to the aquarium trade. It now thrives through the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, Rhode Island and Brazil. The lionfish is particularly a menace to native species due to an evolutionary blind spot called prey naïveté. Unaccustomed to its presence, native crustaceans and fish are unable to recognise the lionfish as a predator. The lionfish preys on over 50 species, equipped with a stomach that can inflate to 30 times its natural size, the impacts of its massive feasts are evident. Where lionfish roam, the number of native fish that survive to adulthood decreases by 80 percent. Although lionfish are a great menace to native ecosystems, its flesh is in fact quite tasty. In 2016, American grocery store chains such as Whole Foods, Wegmans and Public began offering the fish to customers. Whilst there is no concrete evidence that the consumption of invasive species decreases populations, anecdotal evidence exists, as seen in Jamaica where sightings have declined by two-thirds after fishermen underwent specialised handling training to harvest the fish.  

The practice of consuming invasive species has a proper name and can be connected back to the invasivore movement, also known as invasivorism. An invasivore subscribes to the belief that eating invasive species is a means to control, and even eliminate, their numbers. Among its first adoptees is conservation ecologist Joe Roman from the University of Vermont who founded the site Eat the Invaders as a way of promoting the diet. Even though this solution may feel right intuitively, it is not so simple, as human hunger will always have the ability to worsen the situation. For one, invasivorism has the potential of making an invasive species more popular, since opening up a lucrative market can incentivise its proliferation. Profit has the tendency to skew intention and muddy what ought to be done, for instance, the Canadian Federal Government is likely to protect endangered fish if people like to eat it. Consequently, invasivorism may not be a sustainable way forward. However, it could be used as a means for effective awareness campaigns.  

The effectiveness of invasivorism is further questioned after considering the fact that it requires the target population to have a small and concentrated enough population so the number of harvested individuals can exceed the number that would have normally survived in a single breeding cycle. In other words, the mortality stemming from the consumption of a species, such as lionfish, must exceed the birth rate which poses a challenge because such species are often characterised by their high reproductive rates.   

Invasive species pose massive ecological and economic threats but eating them—no matter how tasty they might be—is not the end-all-be-all solution. Like many issues, multi-pronged solutions must be employed, and consumer and market-driven fixes will not solve them. And beyond simply controlling the target species at hand, answers also lay with the management of humans.  

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