Can Invasivores Save Our Planet?

In today’s blog Ann argues that we can make our planet more environmentally sound by eliminating specified ingredients from our diets. This certainly has merit, especially when it comes to things like corn, wheat, or beef. But there may be a flip side of that argument. Rather than cleansing our pantries and fridges of planet-unfriendly items, it may be just as responsible to stock our pantries and fridges with planet-unfriendly foods and ingredients. Let me explain.

From a 2020 YouTube video entitled “Fried Rat in simple recipe with mango sauce in my village.” (It has 3,975,408 views – a somewhat higher number than what I get for Andy’s Corner posts)

A YouTube video shared by my cycling friend, Larry, got me thinking about this. He follows our blog and assumed the video would be of culinary interest. It shows in excruciating detail how to prep and deep fry rats (with mango sauce of course). While gawking at the food preferences of other cultures may be entertaining, which I’m sure explains its nearly 4 million views, I was more interested in the question of whether cultural acceptance of rats as human food may help control their population (I’m referring to the population of rats, not humans).

The practice of eating planet-unfriendly organisms (such as rats) as a population control strategy is not restricted to other cultures. Take what’s happening in Louisiana as a case in point. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I was introduced to the marshes and backwaters of Louisiana by Al, a senior colleague at LSU and a native Louisianan and avid fisherman. On my first foray into the waterways with Al I spotted what looked like a huge rat on the bank of one of the canals. When I asked what it was he said that it was a nutria and that they are bad news.

A Nutria: Louisiana’s 20 pound bad news rodent (and, yes, that’s really the color of their teeth).

They are “bad news” indeed. According to a 2020 USDA Wildlife Services factsheet, nutria are considered an “invasive species” and are quite nasty.

The nutria (Myocastor coypus), a large, semi-aquatic rodent native to
South America, was originally brought to the United States in 1889 for
its fur. When the nutria fur market collapsed in the 1940s, thousands of
nutria escaped or were released into the wild by ranchers who could no
longer afford to feed and house them. While nutria devour weeds and
overabundant vegetation, they also destroy native aquatic vegetation,
crops, and wetland areas.

…[their] burrows can also damage flood-control levees that protect low-lying areas; weaken the foundations of reservoir dams, buildings, and roadbeds; and erode the banks of streams, lakes, and ditches.

And, on top of that, nutria are a public health and safety menace.

The rodents can serve as hosts for several pathogens, including tuberculosis and septicemia, which can infect people, pets, and livestock. In addition, nutria can carry parasites, such as blood flukes, tapeworms, and liver flukes and a nematode known to cause a rash called “nutria itch.”

Al’s comment that these huge rodents are “bad news” was definitely an understatement, especially when we consider that there are an estimated 6,000 nutria per square mile in Southeast Louisiana and that adult females not only produce two litters of up to 13 babies per year, they can breed within a day of having a litter. Where are they finding all of that the time to cause so much havoc? And, who wants to get nutria itch?

It is no longer cool (or PC) to sport fur apparel, even if from an invasive species such as nutria.

So what has been done to control these huge rats? True to our country’s capitalistic impulses, government sponsored programs have tried to turn nutria (dead ones, that is) into something of economic value. Initially, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) introduced programs to promote nutria for the the global fur market, but for a variety of reasons that market has tanked, weakening the incentive for trappers to harvest nutria.

Louisiana nutria hunter

In another effort to control nutria LDWF is offering a bounty of $6 per nutria tail. In 2020 around 240 people participated in the nutria harvest, collecting about 223,000 tails worth more than $1.1 million in incentive payouts. One hunter bagged just under 11,000 nutria tails — worth $55,000. Even with that program in place the nutria population has kept growing.

[Editor’s note: I have to include this tidbit from a NY Times article regarding a possible problem with offering bounties for tails: “In 1902, the French colonial government in Hanoi, Vietnam, hellbent on slaughtering the city’s rats, offered a bounty for each rodent tail delivered as proof of execution; cunning entrepreneurs simply chopped off the tails and released the rats, leaving them free to breed and produce more rats, hence more tails and more bounties.”]

Whole roast nutria – photo from the documentary Rodents of Unusual Size

Perhaps the most interesting potential for controlling the nutria population is summarized by the slogan If you can’t beat them, eat them. Efforts have been made to elevate nutria meat to be comparable to pork or turkey on our dinner tables. Famous chef’s have been recruited to develop nutria recipes and extensive advertising campaigns have been funded by the LDWF.

Even man’s best friend became part of the nutria abatement effort. Unfortunately, Marsh Dog went out of business in 2021.

Louisiana is not alone in its efforts to control destructive species. According to Ligaya Mishan in a NY Times article entitled When Invasive Species Become the Meal, local campaigns such as found in Louisiana are part of a broader movement which is

aiming to reduce, if not eradicate, invasive species — Burmese pythons up to 20 feet long swallowing bobcats whole in the Florida Everglades; sea lampreys sucking the blood out of fish in the Great Lakes; wild boars uprooting crops and wreaking havoc in city streets from Berlin to Hong Kong — by cooking them for dinner.

Program logo from the Institute for Applied Ecology located in Corvallis, Oregon and Santa Fe, New Mexico

The goal of this broader movement is to encourage people to become invasivores (those who eat invasive species). Rather than excluding certain foods from their tables, invasivores aggressively tackle the issue head on by facing the enemy eye to eye on their dinner plates. This means, as Ligaya Mishan aptly states, that what otherwise might be merely an epicurean decision, choosing what to have for dinner becomes “a civic duty, a heroic act, even a declaration of war“.

Just a few recommendations to complete your invasivore cookbook library

But before being too quick to declare all out war on invasive species, we need to look over our shoulders. Despite the impressive list of despicable and destructive species taken on by the invasivore movement, there is one species that never seems to be on the menu. This brings to mind Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo who in 1970 uttered this famous line: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us‘ [editors note: this does not necessarily mean that “she” couldn’t be “us” too].

Walt Kelly – “We Have Met the Enemy…” 1980 reprint of 1970 poster – Toni Mendez Collection.

Fittingly, Ligaya Mishan concludes her NY Times piece quoting British ecologist Ken Thompson who considers the most dangerous invasive species to be humans:

We, too, have brought devastation to new lands, plundering natural resources, stealing from and killing those who lived there first, even spreading our own lethal diseases. We are the meddlers, the apex predators, the survivors at all costs who have taken over every corner of the planet, its seas and skies, its icy and desert wastes, and dared reshape it in our image. We are the invaders. Who will come for us?

Invasive species are not always what you may think they are.

With that I will close and wish you happy eating, invasive species or not. But do be looking over your shoulder.

6 Comments

  1. Marilyn Carlson says:

    MMMMM, Think I will try the cookies! Also on a personal note, I am heading for lunch with friends in Manhattan Beach Tuesday and suggested we
    try Tacolicious. Fun to see it suggested in Westways current issue! Your blogs are always good reading. I’m just now reading “The Lincoln Highway” but really liked “A Gentleman in Moscow”. ( The hotel was so close to where son Don, spent time getting his MFA in Theatre). Amor’s Fettuccine is also a keeper. Thanks Raggedys for enriching or email reading on a regular basis.! Marilyn

    Like

    • theRaggedys says:

      It’s SO so great to hear from you, Marilyn. Please do try out T-lish at Manhattan Beach. I’ll try to alert them that you’re coming – it would help if I knew an approximate time and how many. Thx for your kind comments – and for keeping in touch.

      Like

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