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Eating the invaders: a way to rebalance ecosystems?

Sensemaking / Eating the invaders: a way to rebalance ecosystems?

Invasive species are the second biggest risk to global biodiversity, after habitat loss. Could creating a market for eating them be a solution?

By Naomi Kreitman / 07 Jun 2017

Shambala, a British music festival, went meat and fish free last year in order to decrease its carbon footprint and inspire sustainable eating. This year, festival-goers will have the chance to try grey squirrel and crayfish. Why? Because unlike our more conventional meat and fish options, eating wild grey squirrel and crayfish is entirely sustainable in Britain, and in fact may benefit the natural ecosystem, the organisers maintain.

 The movement to rebalance ecosystems by eating invasive species is young, with several organizations leading the way. Invasivore is an online resource sharing recipes for invasive species and collating news on their consumption from around the globe. Crayfish bob has been leading the sustainable shellfish revolution for over a decade in the UK, and The Wild Meat Company sell squirrel meat from the English countryside. Shambala will be selling meat from squirrels sourced on the festival site. Non-native deer such as muntjac and fallow threaten UK bird and flora species, and experts have suggested that a thriving wild venison market could help rebalance woodland ecosystems. Japanese knotweed is a ‘super-weed’ that spreads rapidly and can shatter through concrete; it is said to taste a lot like rhubarb. In the US, some fine dining restaurants are making menus of invasive snails, crabs and weeds, and Lionfish are gaining traction on menus as a way of handling rocketing lionfish populations.

What is an invasive species?

A species that exists in a habitat outside of its natural range. Mountain ranges and oceans naturally divide species’ habitats, but as global trade increased so did the introduction of invasive species. Intentionally and unintentionally, plants and animals are transported from one corner of the globe to another. They can be harmless, but with no natural predators and carrying diseases to which they are immune, can also spread like wildfire and decimate local ecosystems.

Why eat them?

Firstly, invasive species populations need to be reduced if we are to avoid homogenous ecosystems and the death of our native species. Despite attempts to manage and cull, many invasive species have not been controlled in an organised and effective way. A market for invasive species as food would spur industries to hunt invasive species and reduce their populations. Not only this, but potentially, the current culling programmes could be linked up with food manufacturers and distributors, to save food that would otherwise be wasted. Another benefit of eating invasive species is that by definition they are a local food source, so will have a relatively low carbon footprint in terms of transport.

Why not eat them?

Critics of the ‘invasivore’ movement argue that we cannot be certain consumption of invasive species will succeed in reducing their population. A typical feature is that they reproduce extremely fast, and often mortality from harvest simply kills off the weak or old that would die anyway, thus not making much of a dent in the overall population.

There’s also the issue that this movement would involve entrepreneurs with the ultimate goal of eating up their supply chain: a difficult attitude with which to enter a market. In the words of Matthew Barnes, founder of and assistant professor at Texas Tech University, it is ‘not exactly a successful business strategy’ - unless, of course, you take an ‘ecosystem positive’ approach, rather than focus on the supply of a particular species. Too much dependency on a single source may even cause the movement to backfire: if people acquire an appetite for certain invaders, but miss the point about reducing their population size, there’s a risk this could eventually promote their international cultivation, as argued in a 2012 article on invasive eating published by the Society for Conservation BIology.

Finally, there’s the matter of consumer acceptance. Though venison is already considered a delicacy, it may be difficult to reconceptualise species that were once considered pests, as food. For example, Puerto Rico was invaded by iguanas in the 70's, who were originally brought over to the island as pets and quickly proliferated, wreaking havoc on ecosystems, agriculture and the economy. In South and Central America, where iguanas are native, there has long been a culture of eating them, but in Puerto Rico people are averse to it, and it is illegal to sell the meat for fear of salmonella. Instead, a lot of Puerto Rican iguana meat is sold to America, where it is legal to buy and sell and it seems to be gaining a foothold in the market.

So despite huge potential to incentivise the reduction of invasive species, and reduce waste from culls already in place, eating the intruders comes with its own set of risks and hurdles. What do you think: should invasive eating be on the menu?




Eichhorn, M. P., Ryding, J., Smith, M. J., Gill, R. M. A., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. J. (2017), Effects of deer on woodland structure revealed through terrestrial laser scanning. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12902

Nunez, Martin A., Sara Kuebbing, Romina D. Dimarco, and Daniel Simberloff. "Invasive Species: To Eat or Not to Eat, That Is the Question." Conservation Letters 5.5 (2012): 334-41. Web.

Wäber, K., Spencer, J. and Dolman, P. M. (2013), Achieving landscape-scale deer management for biodiversity conservation: The need to consider sources and sinks. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 77: 726–736. doi:10.1002/jwmg.530

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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