Article on invasive species in The Conversation

Invasive species: if we can’t beat them, maybe we should eat them

By Shonil Bhagwat, The Open University

What to do about invasive species, which are having a growing and generally detrimental effect on Europe’s environment and economies, is the subject of discussion in both the European Parliament and UK Parliament this week.

Invasive alien species are animals and plants introduced accidentally (or deliberately) into an environment where they are not normally found. Although estimates indicate that there are some 12,000 alien species in Europe, only 10-15% have become invasive, that is, have become damaging and of concern. However, just these 10-15% cost Europe €12 billion a year. So while the European Union has put in place its 2020 biodiversity strategy, it has not yet managed to provide a comprehensive framework to address this threat to European biodiversity.

The EU legislation pending a vote has been under discussion since September 2013 and has steadily gathered support from various European bodies and committees. The case for new legislation is persuasive, and in all likelihood it will pass and become a new EU regulation, bringing with it legal obligations on member states to ban the import, keeping, sale, exchange and so on of specific species.

But foresters and horticulturists, whose professions depend on valuable exotic plant species, have raised concerns. After all, many “alien” species of plants have long been cultivated for timber or for ornamental purposes – too broad a ban and these will be drawn into it.

Some of the poorer member states have argued that the proposed measures for surveillance, monitoring and control of invasive alien species will put a heavy burden on their already over-stretched budgets. It’s estimated that this legislation will cost the EU €560,000 between 2015 and 2021 – small change compared to the cost the damage these species cause, but an extra cost nonetheless. But, most importantly, questions remain about the results: experience from around the world suggests that the large sums of money spent on control and eradication programmes have not yielded the promised results.

Lantana camera. Pretty – for a triffid.
Joaquim Alves Gaspar, CC BY-SA

No proven response, yet

Some colleagues and I carried out a historical analysis of the spread and management of Lantana camara, wild or red sage, one of world’s top 50 worst invasive species. We found that despite many different measures – mechanical removal, chemical poisoning, biological control – Lantana continued to spread throughout subtropical regions during the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was evident that countries spent large sums of money trying to control the plant. For example, in 1973 the cost of Lantana control in Queensland, Australia was estimated at A$1 million (US$800,000) per year. In South Africa, chemical poisoning cost an estimated 1.7 million rand (US$250,000) per year in 1999. Indian estimates in 2009 put control costs at 9,000 rupees per hectare (US$200) – reaching a total of US$2.6 billion to tackle the 13m hectares where it has spread in India, a sum greater than the GDP of the neighbouring Maldives islands.

Despite all this money spent in Australia, South Africa and India, the notorious weed has continued to spread. And unfortunately it is not the only invasive species that has proved unmanageable: hundreds or thousands of others have spread across the world, defying all attempts by countries to make their borders “biosecure”.

New approach required

To deal with alien and invasive species that have already made it through porous borders and have established themselves in their new homes, we need more creative approaches than throwing mechanical excavators, chemicals, and enormous amounts of money at the problem.

With the help of NGOs, some rural communities in India have started a cottage industry of making baskets and furniture from Lantana. Other radical solutions that have been proposed to control invasive species include eating them.

A Chicago restaurant owner sells Asian carp burgers at his specialist fish shop to help the problem of this giant fish infesting North America’s Great Lakes. Others making dinner out of invasive alien species include Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, which has a special invasive species menu, through which they “return to the roots of sushi, meaning simply to use what we have available.” Crayfish Bob in London offers a variety of invasive crayfish dishes, providing “quality food for a better environment”.

So the new EU legislation is a precautionary measure to prevent the ecological, economic and social costs that invasive species might in future impose. This will try to ensure Europe is more biosecure through a variety of control measures at borders, tackling those species that have made it through, and efforts to eradicate those that have become a nuisance.

But the costly failures elsewhere in controlling and managing invasive species makes one wonder whether we should find more creative ways of dealing with the problem: local economies based on harvesting invasive species, or recreational hunting, fishing or foraging as a part of nature tourism, perhaps. In any case, a new approach is needed.

The Conversation

Shonil Bhagwat has received funding from Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme of the Natural Environment Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Department for International Development, UK.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Biocultural refugia


A modern-day sacred natural site: Sancheti organic farm near Pune, India, on

Pune, the small town where I grew up, is now a bustling metropolis of 6 million people. In my visit to the city last week, I was stunned by the amount of new construction that has sprung up all the way to the hill fort of Sinhagad. Rumour has it that soon the Pune municipal corporation will designate some more land as “residential” meaning that small farms will be sold quickly and soon new construction will come up in their places. It is in the heartland of this proposed residential zone that some close family friends have started a small organic farm. Looking at the speed with which the concrete frontier is expanding, I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 year’s time this farm is the only bit of greenery left at the foothills of Sinhagad.

The Sancheti farm experiments with local varieties of seasonal crops, vegetables and some fruits. It has been around only for a few years, but in that short time it has turned into a heaven for wild plants and animals as much as it is a “food island”. With expanding urban frontier such food islands will play an increasingly important role in keeping biodiversity in our backyards whilst also feeding us. Stephan Barthel of Stockholm Resilience Centre and his colleagues have recently put forward the idea of ‘bio-cultural refugia‘ – “places that not only shelter species, but also carry knowledge and experiences about practical management of biodiversity and ecosystem services”. The farm near Pune is a great example of such refugia.

But this place is also spiritual. First of all, it is a labour of love. The two farmer sisters and many of their friends and family have been devoted to this farm. They have also built a small cottage from natural materials and now live there as full-time farmers. Their dedication to such a way of life, when most of their peers have given in to the urban temptations of modern India, is remarkable. They have followed a spiritual path, turning their back on many of the creature comforts that we take for granted today. Incidentally, an old shrine of water goddess was recently found at the farm. This is right next to a large well that keeps water on the farm throughout the year making it available for crops even at the driest times of the year. To me, this place is not just an organic farm, it is a modern-day sacred site now complete with its own water goddess shrine!

Sacred natural sites come in all different shapes and sizes and one of my research interests is to map these spiritual places. The sites include spaces set within natural surroundings that are sacred to individuals, groups and communities for a variety of reasons. These sites are considered guardians of ‘biocultural diversity’, the diversity of nature and culture in all its manifestations. Although not a sacred natural site in conventional sense, to me the Sancheti farm no doubt counts as one among those.

Two food cultures of the Anthropocene

Cultured-Beef-01Source: Cultured beef


Source: Spatula, Spoon and Saturday

Think of these two foods – one synthetic meat, tasted in London last week, and the other made out of crayfish, an invasive species. Two very different food cultures: one ‘cultured beef‘ and the other invasivore diet. Both arise out of concern for the environment. The cultured beef promises to supply meat more sustainably as the world’s population – increasing in numbers and also in affluence – demands more and more meat. The invasivore diet, on the other hand, attempts to solve the problem of biodiversity loss by making dinner out of invasive species. Let’s call synthetic meat a technological response to the environmental concern and invasivore diet an ecological response.

The technological response to food was under media spotlight last week. The stem cell beef burger was manufactured in a laboratory and tasted in London on Monday, 5th August – a historical moment – as the media enthusiastically reported. There was excitement, even among the vegan community, because of the promise of synthetic meat to remove animal suffering all together. Numbers were shown to demonstrate that synthetic meat will also drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact of cattle ranching. But there was also some skepticism about the so-called “frankenburger” and concerns that the ‘yuk’ factor in lab-made burger means it will never become popular as the inventors and funders believed it would.

Things can also be said of the ecological response, invasivore diet. ‘Biotic homogenization’ is a serious concern among ecologists and the solution proposed is the eradication of invasive species. Increasingly, the public is getting involved in identifying places where invasive species have spread and are going there to systematically remove them, usually by uprooting the weedy plants or killing animal pests that pose threat to native biodiversity. Eating invasives is a radical solution and there is now a growing movement of invasivores doing just that. There is of course no shortage of invasive species – crayfish, lionfish, Asian carps or garlic mustard, autumn olive, dandelion – all are abundant in places they have invaded. But there is also the ‘yuk’ factor in eating invasives because we are not used to eating these sorts of things, as opposed to conventional vegetables and meat.

What both these food cultures – technological and ecological – do is that they unsettle our notions of what is acceptable as food and what is not. I actually don’t mid trying either synthetic meat or invasivore diet, but must admit that this is not the sort of cuisine I find easily palatable. And I am pretty sure I am not the only one. Both food cultures demand a re-alignment of our ‘comfort zone’ of what is food and what is not. Both shake up our ideas and cognitive models of what is edible. Both are perhaps radical, even audacious, solutions to living in the Anthropocene – part of the survival kit in a brave new world?

Not to disregard the $330,000 spent on making a stem cell beef patty in the lab, personally I think invasivore diet has a lot more going for it – the idea that we can make tasty and even nutritious food out of invasive species can be a much-needed adaptation to our changing natural environment in the Anthropocene. The stem cell burger, in comparison, feels somewhat alien to taste and health. To make invasivore diet a reality, however, we will need to start a cottage industry around invasive species. George Washington Carver, a 20th-century American agronomist, said “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.” So while we wait for the ‘cultured beef’ to make its way into our supermarkets, we might as well start eating invasive species.

Food security in the Anthropocene


Robert and Didi’s allotment garden plot in Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

Allotment or community gardens (like the one pictured above) are a common feature of many European townships. In the United Kingdom, these are collections of small plots that can be rented for a small fee by individuals to grow food. Mostly cultivated by hobby gardeners, these patches are sites of experimentation with a variety of crops – many more varieties than a conventional, commercial farm would dare to grow! Allotments are wonderful spaces of ‘agrobiodiversity’- the sheer diversity of food crops including leafy and root vegetables, fruits and occasionally cereal grains. On the day the above picture was taken, we harvested a unique variety of curly lettuce on Robert and Didi’s allotment and made delicious salad out of it.  There are other vegetables, raspberries and even a small vineyard on the plot – an impressive variety of species on a tiny piece of land in a semi-rural corner of England! Most allotment gardens are a mosaic of small plots, each very individual in its soil type, planting design and crop varieties. This inevitably means that some plots remain uncultivated at times and they can accumulate ‘weeds’ very quickly. Some of the weeds (brambles, in particular) are terribly difficult to get rid of and leave many gardeners frustrated while others are benign.

Somewhat counterintuitive to the frustration with weeds, the headline of report published earlier this week in Nature says: “Weeds warrant urgent conservation”. To many conservationists, that sounds blasphemous: Weeds and conservation? No way! But this report is based on a global analysis of ‘conservation gaps‘ in wild relatives of our 29 most important crop species. There are about 455 known wild relatives of these crops and more than half of those are underrepresented in gene bank collections like the Millennium Seed Bank at the Kew Gardens. But why worry about those so-called ‘weeds’ which grow in the wild and often end up making life difficult for gardeners and farmers. Well, these weeds are the ones that have the ‘magic formula’ to grow in harsh conditions like too little water or too high temperatures (or in case of bramble, ability to send it’s tough roots so deep in the soil that without a JCB digger, the gardener has to accept defeat!). But what is remarkable about these plants is their tenacity. And this tenacity is what might help us in the future to make our crops resilient. That is why the report says we might have to turn to ‘weeds’ to make our crops stronger. If we are successful in expanding our portfolio of crops from 29 to 455, that’s a big step in making agriculture resilient.

This reports has some important consequences for how we grow our food in the Anthropocene – a geological age of our own making. The Anthropocene demands innovative ways to tackle a variety of challenges and food security is one of the more serious ones. There is no doubt we need to increase production to feed a growing population, a proportion of which will also become more affluent. But the question is: can we continue to depend on the 29 crops or are we better off spreading the net wider and looking at their 455 wild relatives? These ‘wild cousins’ might well include some rowdy, unruly and rambunctious characters, but sooner or later we will have to look at their good qualities. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American Transcendentalist, weeds are plants whose virtues have not yet been discovered. The challenge for us in the Anthropocene is to discover the virtues of these 455 wild cousins and feed 9 billion people by mid-21st century.

The Anthropocene cuisine

autumn olive goat cheese dip

Goat’s cheese and autumn olive dip and dressing (Source: 3-Foragers)

“We must mine the biodiversity in seed banks to help to overcome food shortages” urges a report published in Nature earlier this month. A very sensible plea this – not least because our entire global food system is supported by a dozen plant species while there are 300,000 other flowering plants that we can potentially use as food source. A missed opportunity? Absolutely.

This fragile food system is also starting to crack along the margins as recent food scandals have hinted at. Horsemeat might arguably be the only healthy ingredient in burgers (!), but when it sneaks into our food system through the backdoor, we are extremely upset. The truth is that the supply chain of food is getting so complex that we can’t quite trace our food properly. But even more fundamental issue is: Why are there adulterants in our food in the first place? Is it because the ‘quality’ of food has to be compromised so as to supply cheap and abundant food – the hallmark of our food system – leading inevitably to overconsumption, food waste and health problems?

I would rather eat the ‘Goat’s cheese and autumn olive dip and dressing’ pictured above than horsemeat-filled beef burgers! Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), an Asian native has become invasive in North America. The domestic goat is one of worst ten invasive species – a prolific grazer and browser, which has ravaged the countryside in many European countries for centuries. There is no way we can get rid of all goats overnight, nor can we get rid of plants like autumn olives. What better use for these than to make food out of them? Critiques say that by making food from invasive species, we are only going to increase the demand for them and make the problem worse. But we got to start somewhere when control and eradication measures thus far have not been successful. Making food out of invasives is a mighty good idea!

This is the brave new Anthropocene cuisine. An interesting piece in The Atlantic talks about a growing food movement: “Chefs are serving up invasive species like knotweed and snakehead fish – and diners are enjoying them”. The author of this piece Nancy Matsumoto (health, food, and culture writer based in New York City) argues that this food movement might also be good for the environment. Let’s call it invasivory. Not only is invasivory controlling the spread of invasive species, but it is also diversifying food, perhaps even making it more nutritious. Think of Dandelions, a somewhat annoying weed for gardeners in Europe, but Megan Saynisch in an article in Ecocentric says: “Raw dandelion greens have a crazy amount of vitamin K, necessary for blood coagulation and bone health. The greens are also a great source of vitamins A and C, and a decent source of iron, calcium, vitamin E, potassium and manganese. The leaves even have a little bit of protein.”

The Anthropocene cuisine might be good not only for the environment but also for the health.

Invasives on the plate


Photo credit: Ashley Baldridge (

Mystery-snail Fettuccine anyone? Served with fruit, corn on the cob, garlic bread, slaw, and boiled rusty crayfish. Sounds appetizing, looks colourful and probably tastes delicious. It’s one of those recipes from invasive snail in North America. There are dozens of others on – welcome to a brave new world of invasive species cuisine!

Going by findings of recent research on growth in crop yields by 2050, invasive species might well have to be on the menu. This research, reported in the Guardian newspaper, shows that agriculture productivity is not rising fast enough to meet the needs of a rapidly growing world population. This was based on a study of yields of four key staple crops – maize, rice, wheat and soybeans – which supply a large proportion of the world’s diet. Some estimates suggest that 80% of global calorie intake comes from 12 plant species, eight of which are
grasses and four tubers. Imagine a scenario where a pathogen infects some of these crops – global food supply will be in deep trouble. Remember ash dieback in Europe which started in the winter of 2012? As of 17 June 2013, in the United Kingdom alone, there are 524 reported cases of ash dieback. Luckily we don’t eat ash trees! What if this was wheat or rice? Can’t even begin to imagine the catastrophe that would have caused.

The truth is that the global food system is highly ‘centralized’.  We depend on too few crops to feed ourselves. Should we seriously look beyond our 12 main crops? Yes. Wild edible plants – the weeds we often want to get rid of – might in fact have nutritional value that we haven’t recognized.  There are thousands, some of them already tried and tested as edible. Can we ‘discover’ food value in others? We might have to if we are to make our food system more resilient. The invasivores are on to something – they are experimenting with a radically different way of growing or gathering food. Such radical food movements are not new.  There are also locavores, who buy and eat only local food grown within a certain radius from where they live. And there are freegans, who are deeply unhappy about supermarket waste and go to great lengths to collect discarded food and cook dinners out of it. At the heart of these radical food movements is the dissatisfaction with the global food system and a strong statement that something needs to change.

Could ‘invasivory’ turn into a radical movement? Possibly. We might be initially suspicious of trying out food outside of our comfort zone, but we might learn to put up with it, even enjoy it. Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, has a special invasive species menu. They are after cuisine that “returns to the roots of sushi, meaning simply to use what we have available where we live.” Crayfish Bob in London, United Kingdom, offers a variety of invasive crayfish dishes, providing “quality food for a better environment”. There are others who are making adventurous food out of invasives and serving all sorts of things on the plate: lionfish, python and even alligator! But Chef Philippe Parola, a Californian, has the best advice of all: “Can’t beat’em? Eat ’em”!

Living with aliens


How can we live with aliens? Of course, I mean alien invasive species that have spread themselves around the world hitchhiking our transport systems. Indeed, many of them have travelled far along our shipping routes. Zebra mussel is a classic example of an alien species that travelled from the Black Sea to the Great Lakes in North America in 1988. It soon became invasive in its new home and proliferated so much that it started to clog water pipes. At one point, this invasion by the alien was reported to cut off a town’s water supply!

I was at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden the other day giving a public lecture ‘A brave new world: Alien invasive species and novel ecosystems’. This was to celebrate the International Day of Biological Diversity. I talked about the example of Lantana (pictured above), one of 10 worst invasive species in the world. I find Lantana an absolutely admirable weed! It is a native of South America from where it was introduced in the 1800s to botanical gardens in British colonies. It really thrived in Australia, India and South Africa and after two centuries it now occupies land area as big as England on the Indian subcontinent, nearly as big as Scotland in Australia, and bigger than Wales in South Africa.

There are hundreds of other species – plants and animals – that join Lantana’s league as alien invasives. They are everywhere – on land, in water and in the sea. We have tried everything to get rid of these species, but they have kept spreading. In 2009, the cost of Lantana eradication in India was estimated to be $200 per hectare. We know that Lantana is spread over 13 million hectares in India, so the total cost of Lantana eradication – if India decides to eradicate it – will come to $2.6 billion. This sum is bigger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of Maldives! The cost of eradicating Lantana in Australia and South Africa is as high if not higher and there is no guarantee that once eradicated Lantana will not return. Can we ever afford or justify spending that sort of money on eradication of alien invasive species?

If we can’t afford to eradicate them, how can we live with them? Think of Lantana. It has spread over 20 million hectares just in Australia, India and South Africa. That makes it an abundant resource. Now think of tropical forests that are sacrificed to supply wood and paper  to meet our needs. Could we use Lantana instead? That will solve the problem of Lantana invasion and deforestation – two birds in one stone! Eating invasive species also sounds like a compelling solution. In his book Jackson Landers reports his adventures of hunting, cooking and eating invasive alien species in North America. There are many other people who have now started to look seriously at invasive species as a source of food.

So, can we address food insecurity in some parts of the world by promoting invasive species as food more widely? A report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has concluded: “Eating more insects could help fight world hunger“. Of course, not all insects are invasive, but they are abundant and can provide food in much more ‘environmentally-sustainable’ manner than cattle and poultry. Arguably, that leaves out the vegetarians among us, but there are always plenty of weeds for us to eat!

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who led the Transcendentalist movement in the mid-19th century America, once said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” That, to me, sounds like a good approach to living with aliens.