Iguanas are becoming a menu item for local foodies

Warm spring days evoke a strong memory of my grandmother: She’s hunched over the yard, seemingly picking randomly at the grass.

Her short stature and rapid movements give the appearance of a dervish. She grips at a plant, plucks and plops it into the bucket, then moves a short distance away to resume her harvest.

My grandmother collected dandelions, a spring bounty she served with a bacon dressing. The bitter greens were not unlike spinach or kale, bitter yet tasty. My grandfather used the flowers to make a potent wine.

This time of year, I so often encounter dandelions shriveled from hefty doses of herbicide. Recalling my grandmother, it seems a waste: Here are delicious, nutritious greens that could be providing some free meals. Instead, they’ve become toxic reminders of the so-called “war on weeds” — the scorched earth approach to invasive control favored by both surburban lawn owners and conservationists.

Why aren’t we instead looking at some non-native, invasive species as a sustainable source for fresh, local food?

The idea is popular. Books like Jackson Landers’ upcoming Eating Aliens encourage local foodies to eat such invasives as iguanas and nutrias. Marine conservationists have launched campaigns to encourage restaurants to carry lionfish, a species devastating coral reefs.

Even governments have urged their citizens to eat non-native gray squirrels (in Britain) and camels (in Australia).

As history shows, people can certainly eat their way through populations of species. As such, eating invasives doesn’t only provide good food, it’s good conservation.

Or is it?

An upcoming paper by ecologist Martin Nunez and others to be published in Conservation Letters, the journal of the Society of Conservation Biology, encourages skepticism to this approach.

In the paper, they argue that encouraging people to eat invasives may have unintended consequences. There’s a real risk, the authors argue, that people will start actually liking said invasives.

Entrepreneurs could develop markets for them; hunters could enjoy pursuing them. Invasives could become a part of the local culture.

As a review in Conservation Magazine points out, native Hawaiians often oppose eradication measures for non-native pigs because pig hunting and eating is so clearly linked to their culture.

I can relate: On a recent weekend, my friends and organic gardeners Clay and Josie Erskine asked me to their farm to hunt the non-native (in Idaho) wild turkeys that had begun raiding their gardens.

As we looked across their farm, ring-necked pheasants ran from the kale patch. Valley quail called from literally every corner of the property.

“Every one of them is a non-native species,” Josie sighed. “And they’re all absolutely devastating to vegetable farmers like us.”

Non-native quail, pheasants and turkeys have a constituency, though. Membership organizations advocate for their conservation. Landowners can receive government funding for practices that largely benefit these birds.

I reluctantly admit, as a non-native gamebird hunter, I would oppose any effort to eliminate these species.

Could campaigns to eat kudzu or camels or carp actually have the reverse effect? Could such campaigns lead to people protecting or spreading them?

It bears serious thought.

The risks need to be recognized. So, too, do the benefits.

Intensive invasive species control poses risks of its own. With its war metaphors and scorched earth campaigns, invasives eradication often requires hefty doses of toxic chemicals. And just as often, weeds or invasive animals still flourish. Aside from cases on small islands such as Santa Cruz, complete eradication is usually impossible.

Recognizing dandelions as a food source will not eradicate the plant. But spraying dandelions doesn’t, either.

In many ways, eating invasives is not a control measure so much as it is a new way of interacting with non-native species. Through eating them, they become part of our environment rather than “enemies.” And because they’re prolific and abundant, they make ideal sustainable, low-carbon, local food sources.

Despite our best efforts, invasive species already thrive in our midst. Is serving them for dinner really going to make them even more prevalent?

Doubtful. These species are here to stay. It’s time to recognize them as a truly sustainable and abundant food source. I’ll take the fried iguana served over a bed of dandelion greens, please.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of The Nature Conservancy.

[Image: Iguanas, an invasive species in places like Florida, are becoming a menu item for local foodies. Image source: Matt Miller/TNC]

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  1. Finally, a use for foodies…

  2. I’ve wondered if we would be better off giving consumers a ‘taste’ for the exotics, or giving it to the farmers. A lot of these invasives could become fodder for animals instead of humans. Pigs, goats and cows could make short work of a lot of these species. Goats can go to the source, and pigs could eat fish meal.

  3. Love the irony of the organic farmers complaining. I don’t believe your kale is a native of the N. American prairie.

  4. @Jason, the economics don’t work if you are going to use invasives for animal feed rather than to feed humans. Feeding invasive fish meal to pigs as you suggest would require that the price of the feed be competetive with existing sources of pig food.

    Fishermen on the Missouri river really need to be making something between 25 to 50 cents per pound on silver carp to make a decent living. Right now very few fishermen are targeting the invasive silver carp because they are usually only getting something around 10 or 15 cents per pound. Most of that catch is being turned into fertilizer and other products of that sort. This translates to poverty wages for the fishermen, which is why hardly anyone is doing it.

    With lionfish the price needs to be even higher. Unlike silver carp, they need to be speared one at a time by a a diver with a mask and snorkel. The venomous spines then need to be carefully removed. This type of effort makes sense for putting an $18 entre on someone’s plate at a restaurant but the idea of going to all that trouble to feed a pig is impossible.

    Using wild-harvested invasive species for industrial purposes, in most cases, will not be an economically viable approach. Using them for food for humans makes it much more likely that wholesale prices hit and maintain the levels necessary to hunt or fish the species proftably.

    Dandilions, however, are a lost cause. We’re never getting rid of those.

    I’ll be writing a blog entry responding to the question of whether eating invasive species would hinder eradication.

  5. One of our main sources of protein is feral hogs and native deer (hunted by a friend of mine). As an ecologist, I would be thrilled to hunt the hogs (not the deer) to local extinction. However, there are others in the area who rely on hog hunting as a food source and eliminating the hogs could be devastating to them. While there’s probably enough deer to go around right for now, we won’t want to hunt THEM to extinction (it already almost happened once).

  6. chukars are an invasive … Yum … but not ready to eat yellowstar thistle or rush skeleton weed yet … great article Matt

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