Cooking Invasive Species May Be the New Ethical Food Frontier

CC BY 2.0. U.S. Geological Survey

Eating one’s enemies sounds rather grotesque, but it might make a lot of sense – as long as we’re talking about invasive plants and animals. “Invasivore” is a term used to describe a person who incorporates invasive species into their regular diet. Here in North America, there are plenty of exotic invaders to choose from, though it might take some effort to view them as dinner material. There are some good reasons to try it.

(1) Invasive species are usually unwanted, rapidly growing populations that threaten local ecosystems. They are accessible, nutritious, fresh, local, possibly delicious, and likely free.

(2) Eating invasive species is one way to control those populations, and could even make a sizeable dent in them, provided enough people get on board with harvesting or hunting them.

(3) If a meat-eater could divert his or her dietary habits from the usual selection of farmed beef, poultry, and pork to include invasive species, this could decrease at least some of the ecological burden created by conventional meat production, while hopefully improving another ecological problem – that of the invaders themselves.

(4) Culling populations for the purpose of consumption could reduce the need for chemical spraying, death by poison, or other toxic methods used for population control.

The biggest hurdle is getting North Americans to even consider an invasivore menu. Plants are the easiest place to start. Take kudzu, for example, a rapid-growing climbing plant with reddish-purple flowers originally from eastern Asia. It is used for erosion control and crop fodder but has become a major pest in the southeastern United States. Another pest, burdock, is a member of the daisy family, with large hook-like flowers that turn into clinging burrs after fertilization. Chef Jason Bigas likes to ferment these bitter greens and turn them into an “invasive kimchi.” (That sounds really good to my kimchi-addicted palate.)

Less appealing are invasive animal species, many of which are considered delicacies in their native countries. The Asian carp will give you a mouthful of bones that Asians don’t mind picking out as they eat, but North Americans hate doing. The invasion of massive twenty-foot Burmese pythons in Florida could be a great opportunity for invasivores, except that most have double the amount of mercury recommended for safe consumption. In Burma, however, python meat is highly sought after. There’s the nutria, a semi-aquatic rodent introduced from South America in the 1930s as a furbearing game species. Demand for fur has dropped, so now the nutria population is overgrazing the wetlands of Louisiana. The problem is that most diners don’t like its rat-like appearance.

If you love this idea, perhaps you should check out the Annual Invasive Species Cook-Off that takes place each summer in Oregon. It’s an opportunity for adventurous chefs, food-lovers, and environmental activists to get together and sample strange, exotic dishes made with invasive species of all types. The attendees, who use catchy slogans like “Eating Aliens” and “Eradication by Mastication,” strongly believe that eating invasive species is an ethical food choice.

What do you think?