Eating Invasive Species: A Multipurpose Solution?
Invasive species are a major driver of global species extinctions, second only to habitat loss. But what are invasive species, and how do they negatively impact our world?
Increasing globalization has facilitated the spread of species across the planet, some of which have taken root elsewhere. However, not all transported species are invasive. Invasive species are animals, plants, or other organisms introduced to a new environment by human activity that negatively impact pre-existing ecosystems. While many approaches have attempted to eliminate invasive species, eating them has been proposed to curb growth while expanding food availability.
Impact of Invasive Species
Invasive species can reduce the resilience of natural habitats, agricultural systems, and urban areas. Furthermore, addressing the issue is costly. A US study estimated that invasive species cost 137 billion dollars annually, as a result of negatively impacted crop yields, timber production, fisheries, and human and animal health, as well as the high costs of control and eradication programs.
The relationship between climate change and invasive species poses additional challenges. Not only do areas affected experience increased pressure, but climate change supports the spread of non-natives. Studies have found that warmer temperatures and higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels favor invasive species over natives. Because invasive organisms require more nutrients than native species, the increased heat, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water associated with climate change support rapid growth.
Different approaches used to control invasive species include chemical application, mechanical or physical removal, and biological control. One solution––eating them––has experienced impressive popularity.
Eating Invasive Species
“If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” is a mantra that has arisen in response to the stubborn invasives. The arguments for eating them are twofold: decrease the impact of persistent invasives and increase regional food security. Some edible invasive species include:
- Asian carp (Mississippi River): fish species native to Asia, threaten native fish, similar to cod in flavor
- Nutria (Louisiana): semi-aquatic rodent native to Argentina, damage crops and aquatic vegetation, meat similar to a wild hare
- Lionfish (Florida Keys): fish species native to Indonesia, threaten Atlantic coral reef fish
- Kudzu (southeast US): vine native to Japan, threatens crops, can be used like spinach, flowers can be converted into a grape-tasting jam
- Wild boar (Texas and Florida): native to Eurasia and North Africa, alter vegetation, soil composition, and water quality
Although there is no conclusive research evaluating the effectiveness of increasing food security through harvesting invasives for human consumption, locally available edible invasive species would increase food quantity.
Based on the history of human activity impacting species’ populations to extinction, there is an assumption that eating invasives could have a similar effect. However true, there are some potential problems, challenges, and possible unintended consequences that should be considered, including:
- Creating an invasive food market: invasives with a high economic value tend to be protected, eliminating jobs of residents relying on invasives creates an ethical dilemma
- Promoting the adoption of invasives into local cultures: concern around ecological damage of lessens when a species is culturally appreciated reduces the success of management programs
- Failure to affect invader population size, expansion, or growth: many harvested plant species are not entirely removed, thus allowing reseeding or resprouting; in animals, should be harvested before reproduction to slow growth
The increasing global population and globalization trends increase both food insecurity and the likelihood of new invasive species introduction, resulting from increased travel and genetic spread. The popular idea of eating invasive species has many potential benefits to these problems, including growing the awareness of invasive species, assisting in early detection and rapid response efforts, and boosting the local economy. However, a formalized decision to start a program using human consumption to remedy the challenges posed by invasive species should be carefully considered.