Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Edible Invasives

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

If you read this blog, you know that we in the Entomology Department at U.K. are concerned about exotic and invasive organisms. Lots of other people are, too. Michael Russell, Scotland's Environmental Minister, believes that "the invasion of non-native species now constitutes the biggest threat to our native biodiversity after climate change." At a recent seminar here in our department Dr. David Wagner (University of Connecticut) showed that invasive species are the second biggest threat to insect diversity after development.

So, we know that invasives are a problem. But what can we do? There are lots of government programs and volunteer efforts that are working to eradicate these organisms, but most take a military approach: they try to spray, cut, infect, and generally shock-and-awe these organisms to death. But what about a more subtle approach? How about... a culinary approach?

I've been reading more and more about efforts to put invasive species on the menu. It's a perfect solution: if invasive species are eating our stuff, let's eat them instead. It doesn't work in all cases (don't try to eat an invasive thistle!), but here are some examples that I've seen recently:

-kudzu. Kudzu is a nasty invasive weed that has been taking over the southern U.S. You can make jelly from it.
-garlic mustard can be used in pesto
-Japanese knotweed is another pest in our area. It has a number of uses.
-an invasive Ray species in the Northeast has shown up on sushi menus. I saw this on a CNN video a few weeks ago, but I can't find it again. Can anyone send me this link? UPDATE: Here is the CNN video. This is a related story in text form. "Eat a Ray and Save the Bay."

And here are some invasive edibles that we've been consuming for years:

-honey bees. Okay, we don't eat the bees, but we eat their secretions (honey). Many people don't realize that honey bees are not native to the U.S. And although they provide a lot of benefits, they also cause problems: they out-compete native bees and their stings send lots of people to the hospital
-pork. Domestic pigs probably originated in Asia. These days, they are delicious right here in the U.S. They cause lots of problems when they become feral, though, so they "count" as an invasive species.

Of course, turning invasives into edible products has a risk: if a demand is created, it's possible that the invasive species will become raised/farmed for profit, and spread even more. So the key is to eat an invasive species until it's gone, and then find a new one to whet our appetites!

Can anyone think of any other "edible invasives?"

UPDATE: I just found a new article from the Louisville Courier-Jounral about an attempt to turn consumers and fishermen onto Asian carp, an invasive fish that is found in Kentucky (and lots of other places). Hey, serve it up. I'll eat it.

Also, another important edible invasive that I forgot: dandelions. They've been in salad mixes and regional/traditional cuisine for years.