Invasivorism takes a food fight to the field 

click to enlarge Cheatgrass doesn't have to become fire fuel; as blended with barley, it can make a totally decent beer. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • Cheatgrass doesn't have to become fire fuel; as blended with barley, it can make a totally decent beer.

San Diego-based metal band Cattle Decapitation recently released a new album featuring a song called "Cannibalistic Invasivorism." My interest naturally piqued, I read up on the subject — the invasivorism, that is — and discovered the practice of eating invasive species as a means of population control, and of defending native species.

"If you can't beat 'em, plate 'em," declares the subheadline of a 2014 Outside magazine feature built partly around a Connecticut-based sushi chef who hunts and fries Asian shore crabs, an invading nuisance there since the late '80s. The article cites everything from Asian carp to types of seaweed to 5 million roaming feral hogs as together contributing to an annual national cost above $100 billion via crop losses, infrastructure damage and more.

So what stands between more eco-conscious and DIY-driven consumers becoming invasivores? After all, eating our way out of our problems is as American as it gets.

Let's consider hoary cress, also known as white weed for the small, fragrant flowers it shoots, which has invaded El Paso and surrounding counties. It crowds out local plants across wide areas. But it's also a tasty green reminiscent of mild mustard greens. According to a report from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, it is rich in calcium, potassium and Vitamin C; Tamara Geene, who co-owns a local wild-plant education and consulting business called Earth's Green Gifts, recommends its tender leaves for salads.

Looking for some protein? According to Colorado Parks & Wildlife invasive species specialist Robert Walters, the rusty crayfish is found in the San Luis Valley's Sanchez Reservoir State Wildlife Area and in the headwaters of the Yampa River in northwest Colorado. It's bigger and more aggressive than native crayfish species, breeds rapidly and eats plant beds that local fish use to spawn.

That size means that for foragers, there's more meat per crayfish. But you must decapitate or eat your catch on site. Parks & Wildlife will fine anyone who moves living crayfish away from a waterway they've infested, as part of efforts to keep the crayfish from entering new territory. And when you cook them, you must do so thoroughly, advises Geene — rusty crayfish live in environments useful to muskrats and beavers, which both carry giardia.

And that's where we start getting into some complications that come with consuming invasives.

Another example comes via cheatgrass, also known as downy brome, which can threaten our habitats not just by invading, but by becoming tinder. In a 2012 NPR interview, Boise State University associate professor of geoscience Jen Pierce explained that unlike many native Great Basin plants, cheatgrass dies in the summer. Its thin stalks are perfect fuel for wildfires, and after a burn, the land is clear and rich with nitrogen — perfect for another bumper crop of cheatgrass.

Though we can't eat cheatgrass, we can drink it. Dr. Tye Morgan, an avid homebrewer and owner of Nevada-based Bromus Tech, has toasted cheatgrass seeds to make everything from light lagers to stouts and porters. Though it lacks a certain enzyme that makes its starches fermentable, mixing it 3-to-1 with malted barley provides enough of said enzyme to make a viable mash.

"It's such an incredible beer grain," Morgan says, noting that it's also easy to harvest. But cheatgrass is also prone to smut, a toxic black fungus that's hard for the untrained eye to spot.

"If they're not familiar with the plant," she says of foragers, "they could go out there and kill themselves."

Morgan has a similar warning for common purslane, whose thick leaves recall baby jade plants. "My husband just sent me an article about purslane, how it's the new super antioxidant food, and I'm going, 'Guys, it may have all these antioxidants, but ... it can poison and kill you,'" she says. "They have recorded deaths of people putting this in their soups, and they're giving out soup recipes in this article. Are you kidding?"

Immediate risks aren't the only risks. Purslane contains a lot of calcium oxalate, which pulls calcium from bones. Some thistles, Morgan says, can cause cancer. More generally, as Geene points out, soil by railroads and highways, or too close to certain agricultural businesses, can be full of chemicals that make plants toxic. Hell, spinach, common spinach, can cause problems if it's grown in soil with too much lead in it.

There is good information for those determined to do it right — the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published an exhaustive list of papers on invasives, all of which can be found on Google Scholar. And those might be your best bet for authoritative information today, given that it takes the Food and Drug Administration 10 to 15 years and around $10 million in research to approve a new food product.

All this in mind — as well as foraging laws that vary by jurisdiction — it's understandable to hear that DIY types are unlikely to hit critical foraging mass anytime soon.

"Does it hurt? No," Walters says. "But is it a long-term solution? I don't think so."

Perhaps she's right. But even if it's not a long-term solution, it's still pretty metal.


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