Is it OK to eat invasive species?


Here’s the scenario: the Chinese mitten crab is an opportunistic and invasive species in Europe and the US that outcompetes native species, damages fish salvage facilities, disrupts local food chains, and causes considerable environmental and economic damage. To the Chinese, mitten crab is a sought-after delicacy.


Humans are so good at eating species into extinction — why not apply our cunning, hunger, and sheer numbers to invasive species that damage biodiversity? There are almost 7 billion of us to act as predators to rabbits, lionfish, Asian carp, mitten crabs, and rusty crayfish (to say nothing of invasive plants, my favorite of which is Ipomoea aquatica, a mild leafy green that tastes amazing sauteed with a little garlic and salt). Introducing these species was our mistake. Why not clean it up and feed ourselves at the same time?

From an environmental standpoint, this is a brilliant idea. Even if we can’t completely eliminate an invasive species, we can actively control it, and maybe use that food to replace  some of the most resource-intensive and pollutant forms of animal farming we currently use. Eating them is not the only way to deal with invasive species, but it might be one of the most resourceful. (We’ve discovered through trial and error that introducing other species to deal with an introduced-turned-invasive species has a tendency to backfire.)

As an environmentalist, I am completely OK with eating our way out of invasive species (if we can’t be wise enough to prevent spreading them in the first place). But as a vegetarian? I stopped eating animals because I hated the thought of suffering, blood, and death in my meal.  Invasive or not, these  species are no less sentient for being out of their element. What gets priority? Preventing individual suffering or preserving biodiversity?

It’s becoming more obvious that the goals of vegetarianism and environmentalism don’t always coincide. As the authors of The 100 Mile Diet discovered, it’s hard to get complete nutrition from a local diet without incorporating some animal products. Vegetarianism is mostly about not harming animals; environmentalism is about restoring or preserving balance. Call me cold-hearted, but my bottom line is not ‘Is it compassionate?’ but rather, ‘Is it sustainable?’ Do the bigger picture benefits of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems outweigh the suffering of the individual animals? I think so.

I don’t personally want to eat invasive animals, and I don’t think I need to when most of the 7 billion humans in the world are omnivores without conflicted consciences. As a species, we have more than enough manpower to practice, er, conservation through gastronomy. I would hope that this would also allow some of the species we’ve pushed to the brink with our appetites to recover.

What do you think about eating invasive species? If you’re vegetarian or vegan, would you do it (or encourage others to)?


25 responses to this post.

  1. If the presence of a non-native invasive species is truly disrupting the balance of an ecosytem and threatening other species, whatever methods that help to safely eradicate it should be employed, including harvesting them for those who eat animals. My dietary choices, now being vegan, are motivated first by environmental concerns, second by health and well-being, and third by animal cruelty issues. So for me, the environment supercedes that of concern for harming a population of invasive creatures.


    • Hi Donn,
      I have a similar set of priorities (health isn’t really on there yet, but I’m sure it will be some day), and I agree. Actually, I think we could stand to be more proactive about invasive species. By the time we see a problem, it’s often too late to do anything but damage control. Of course, the emphasis should always be on prevention. Animals out of their native habitats and ecosystems are very unpredictable — regular old North American gray squirrels strip (and kill) trees in Europe. In hindsight, it would have been so much easier to prevent rabbits from ever reaching Australia than to deal with the aftermath.


  2. I’m not sure! Admittedly, when I first saw the title of your tweet, I immediately assumed you meant plants, not animal wildlife. I also have to preface this by saying that the biggest reason why I’m not a vegetarian is that if all living things have souls, then replacing animal life for plant life is unethical to me. Simply because plants don’t scream or bleed when harvested, doesn’t make it any less traumatic for the soul of the plant.

    That being said – I don’t know how I feel about eating invasive species. I am always strongly against human intervention to control populations. Even in the name of population sustainability to prevent species from going extinct, I have my reservations. This is because humans really have no idea what they’re doing or how far-reaching their effects are. I say this, even in the face of an invasive species problem. The way I picture it is like this: if we begin to eat animals that don’t belong here, and people begin to have a taste for it, then we could resort to overfishing and shipping the animal from elsewhere.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to eat, for example this crab. If anything, assuming it was feasible, I would prefer we rounded up the animals and sent them back to their natural habitat. To me, this isn’t that far of a reach from harvesting animals to eat them – same type of man power I would assume. But instead of eating them, we’d re-home them.

    But I don’t know if I would recommend that method for every invasive species because there are so many kinds. But I definitely feel that the human involvement should be minimal.


    • I’m pretty sure that the gathering, handling, and housing of somewhat delicate crabs for the arduous transport to China would subject all to suffering of whatever stress a crab may feel for a prolonged time. Few would likely make it alive. Even if some method of safely delivering them to their native China were possible, flooding an area with additional numbers of a species than it can sustain would likely lead to die-offs or cause a chain reaction of other additional problems.


    • Hi Tatiana,
      I agree that we don’t know half as much as we think we do about the natural world, and I’ve read with interest several articles that debate whether trying to save the ‘glamorous’ endangered species is a good use of our resources (especially when many key but not photogenic species are far more important to their ecosystems). However, I think humans have gone so far in affecting other animal species that we might as well try to undo some of the damage we do. Not making an attempt to keep rabbits from decimating native marsupials, or mongooses from extinguishing native Hawaiian birds — that seems like making a mess without trying to take responsibility for it. It’s true that the mess may be beyond our capability to fix, but we certainly should try. I mean, that just about sums up my whole environmental philosophy right there.

      I think there has been some attempt to catch mitten crabs and import them back to China for sale. It seems like a bit of a waste of fossil fuels when Europe is capable of consuming those same crabs. Rehoming, as I understand it, has been expensive and largely unsuccessful in a number of cases (such as with deer, estimated cost per head for re-homing is $300+). The animals often die in transport, fail to re-adapt, or become prey.

      You have an interesting point that we could develop a taste for invasive species and want to cultivate or import them! Oh, humans…


  3. Ha! I think this is a fabulous post and a very interesting idea. I, however, firmly believe that the most damaging invasive species on the planet is the human being… and I’m not goin’ there!

    Now if only people could eat Chinese elm trees…


    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      No argument from me there. Humans are undoubtedly the most successful invasive species on the planet right now. I think you should go there! 🙂 If we were being really ruthless about doing what was best for the planet, I think a lot of humanitarian rights would be put aside. Not sure how I feel about that. There must be some sort of balance we can achieve.


      • Guess it’s time to start pushing for cannibalism? :~)


        • I think we’ve already heard that modest proposal before! Better access to contraception and less social pressure to procreate would probably be less chaotic and messy than cannibalism.


  4. My concern would be that if a whole bunch of people started eating an invasive species, whether animal or plant, commercial entities would see an opportunity to make money and would begin producing more. We’d see fish farms sprout up (with their unique environmental problems) and huge farms with invasive crops. So … while I rather like the idea of eradicating an invasive species by feeding the general population, I don’t think it would ultimately work.


    • Hi Small Footprints,
      Yeah…you’re right. Commercial interests could ruin everything. But according to something my parents read, once the Chinese population got wind of free mitten crabs on the west coast, they got out there and pretty much ate them into control. That type of short term free-for-all is more what I had in mind. If we were to initiate a program for eating invasives, it would have to be paired with strict laws and enforcement against producing more of them. And we’d have to be aware from the start that this was a limited time type of offer. Maybe we’re just not smart enough to pull it off


    • I agree with this. It was the first thing I thought of. Sad, but some people follow the money to the detriment of the environment.


  5. Posted by Louisa on 08/21/2011 at 12:44

    I think it is TOTALLY good to eat invasive species, I eat American signal crayfish all the time here in France, they are invasive, have decimated the indigenous population and are causing widespread damage of river banks and the overall eco-system. I have also eaten American grey squirrels in the UK, where they have wiped out the red squirrels there. I do not think there is any possible way that these species will ever be eradicated for good, but why not have fun trying?


    • Hi Louisa,
      Good for you! I don’t think it’s the ultimate solution either, but I think it could be one way to keep an invasive species in check. If they made cat food from invasive species, I’d probably buy it for my cat. Couldn’t be worse than the low quality meat that goes into pet food as it is. So…um…how did gray squirrels taste?


  6. Count me among those who think it would be a GREAT idea to chow down, Baby!


  7. Jennifer,

    You have such a creative, investigative mind! I never know what I will find at your blog, but it’s always something interesting and often thought provoking.

    Are there spiritual traditions that believe plants have souls as one of your readers said? That’s not the case in Buddhism.

    I don’t think the question is whether it’s compassionate vs. sustainable because being sustainable may save more lives in the long run and therefore be “more” compassionate…if you can compare these things in that way. The impact of our actions depends a great deal on the intention and motivation behind them – if the sincere intention is for benefit or if our motivation is actually to harm and hurt. If the intention is positive, there are still karmic consequences to harming but not as grave as when the intention is primarily harmful. But, of course, we need to have clear insight to what really is beneficial in the long run. Often, that’s not easy to know or see.


    • Hi Sandra,
      Thank you for your kind words! I could say the same thing about your blog. I don’t know the answer to your question about plants and souls. As an empiricist, I’ve observed that animals very obviously feel pain where plants don’t, so I choose not to eat animals for that reason.

      The question of intent is something I struggle with. I’d like to think it makes a difference, yet I think we should also be realistic about measuring impact. We can intend to save the world by recycling all our plastic water bottles, yet fall very short in achieving a more sustainable world. You’re right that it’s hard to measure compassion, and it’s even more difficult when showing compassion to one individual may be the direct opposite of showing compassion to an ecosystem or a native species. How can we measure ‘least harm’?


  8. What an interesting issue Jennifer. I am a vegetarian and border-line vegan ( I eat fish and some turkey) and I don’t think I would eat the Chinese Mitten Crab or other invasive animal species. Having said that, I agree with you: The bigger picture benefits of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems outweigh the suffering of the individual animals.


    • Hi Lori,
      If there were only a few people who could make a dent in invasive species, I’d probably eat them (the invasive animals, that is)…but there are enough eager omnivores out there that I don’t think I or any other vegetarian/vegan should feel obliged. Besides, there are plenty of invasive plants to eat!

      In my mind, the question gets really interesting if you take the idea of putting ecosystems in front of individual suffering…and expand ‘animals’ to include humans. Is biodiversity worth human suffering and death?


  9. Hm, tricky. It’s definitely not the fault of invasive species that they ended up where they did and found their new surroundings to be very conducive to a population explosion. This is yet another problem of human making, and we’re going to have to find a way of dealing with it. But it’s not much different from endless acres of monoculture inviting swarms of insects to feast on the crops we grow in that manner. Sadly, in that case we choose to solve the problem by spraying pesticides.

    I think we need to hope that Mother Nature will eventually balance things out again. Eventually invasive species populations will crash and burn when they deplete the resources they depend on (sound familiar?) and perhaps things will return to normal. But not on a human time scale of a few decades… probably centuries? Millennia?


    • Hi Andrea,
      Yep…it’s definitely tricky. Unfortunately, some species just don’t seem to balance out until they’ve destroyed a lot of native animals and thrown whole ecosystems out of whack. True, they probably do return to some sort of equanimity eventually, but it’s likely to be a scenario with a lot less biodiversity than the one it took over. Take humans, for example. We’ll eventually be held in check by the physical limits of our resources, but by the time that happens, a lot of species and ecosystems will have gone down the tube. Seems like a waste of a perfectly good planet. 😦


  10. Posted by Mark McLellan on 08/13/2012 at 10:42

    That’s why we should only buy American. Too many contaminated ships coming from China.


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