Meet the Invasivore: An Answer to Australia’s Rabbit Problem?

Master of Sustainability student Douglas Donnellan asks: what if local food took on a new, supplementary form and incorporated invasivorism?

Image by John Schilling via Flickr Commons

Since being heralded by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “word of the year” in 2007, most of us have heard the term “locavore”. Its principles are nothing new, and before globalisation, it was the default food system of any given place. You eat what nature gives you, within its own seasonal and environmental limits. At its core, the concept is all about consuming food which is produced locally, in the same geographic region. Localism has the potential to strengthen local economies, inspires innovation and pride for your own food community, helps develop more resilient and self-reliant agriculture, and can eliminate the energy wasted on storing, cooling, packaging and transporting food across the rest of the world. With the movement’s resurgence, chefs like Bun Lai from Miya’s Sushi in Connecticut, USA have been making the most out of the offerings of their local land by showcasing them with creative cooking techniques, and in this age of food, innovations are giving communities a stronger sense of identity.

What if local food took on a new, supplementary form?

What if, while accomplishing the ideals of locavorism, we could also protect biodiversity, alleviate some pressure from conventional food production, reduce topsoil erosion, and help regenerate the land back to its original state by removing invasive species? Enter, the invasivore: one who consumes invasive plant or animal species as a means to mitigate their spread within their non-native environment. The younger cousin to the locavore, the invasivore converts a local ecological disaster into dinner. Evidence of this movement in action has already been documented with some success, such as in the cases of the Lionfish Derbies in the Florida Keys and nonnative iguana hitting fine dining establishments in Puerto Rico. Harvesting, inspecting, processing and marketing invasive species for consumption inspires community participation, education, culture, and creates jobs. Invasivores champion some of the core aspects of the locavore movement.

With this concept starting to gain momentum, it may be a tasty solution to the rabbit problem in Australia. Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the scale of the issue.

Originally brought to Australia by the First Fleet in 1788 as food animals, the European domestic rabbit maintained only steady growth as they weren’t ideally suited to the harsh land. Decades later, the English settler, Thomas Austin, released the European wild rabbit for a bit of sport hunting. Unfortunately, Austin’s wish to bring a touch of home to Australia caused the wild and domestic species to breed, creating a hybrid that could proliferate year-round, with no harsh winter to slow them down. By 1920, the population of Australia neared 10 billion, and since then has wrought havoc upon native biodiversity.

Rabbits decimate vegetation and dig up land to build their warrens. This leaves topsoil exposed and vulnerable to erosion, which is then deposited into waterways, severely disrupting aquatic ecosystems. They also come into direct competition with other grazing native and food animals, reducing land carrying capacity and raising management costs for farmers. Young shrubs and trees are killed by a process called “ringbarking”, by which rabbits gnaw a circle of bark off a tree, causing its slow death. Efforts to control the species have involved shooting, poisoning, barrier fencing, and introducing myxomatosis and calicivirus. Each initiative has resulted in varying successes and uncertain ecological consequences.

What can we, the eco-conscious eaters of Australia do about it?

Invasivores, grab your forks. From current OECD data, Australia is leading globally in per capita meat consumption of beef, veal, lamb, chicken and pork. This waves a few red flags at the environmental impact from production, and our overall health. Introducing rabbits into our diets presents a four-fold solution:

  1. A healthier addition to our current staple meats.
  2. Less pressure on our current, unsustainable beef production systems.
  3. An added solution to an invasive species that is directly causing land erosion and biodiversity loss.
  4. It encourages innovation by new means of preparing this ingredient for consumption, helping heighten cultural identity.

The challenges to making rabbits a mainstream food?

Dated stigmas and house-hold culinary ineptitude, which present opportunities for chefs and producers to reinstate their importance to the future of our food system and foster the relationship between humans and where their food comes from.

Douglas Donnellan is a chef, recipe developer, and restaurant consultant pursuing a Master’s degree in Sustainability at the University of Sydney. His interests include food and nutrition security, agricultural and diet diversification, and global food systems reform.