Friday, January 02, 2009

Invasive species (non native) Gardening (Plants) meets Eating (beef)

Invasive species issues are linked with climate change and together form a ground for discussions of sustainability. The definitions of sustainable include ideas of native and preservation. There is a danger sometimes of wandering down the preservation at the expense of humanity path, but for the most part the issue is one of conserving resources for the greater good and long term benefit of humanity. Sorting through the implications of terminology and concepts such as ‘native is good/alien is bad’ creates a minefield for stakeholders seeking consensus solutions.

For gardeners the idea that some plants are bad has long been a staple under the heading of weeds. The process especially is the bane of some gardener’s existence. That some species overcome and overwhelm the garden is not a novel idea. What is novel is that a species not found locally is somehow evil and that adding species is bad creates a frustrating principle for gardeners bent on doing good things for the local landscape. The stewards of natural areas are responding just as gardeners to afflictions of unwanted species that produce havoc in natural systems and notice that some of the most egregious happen to be popular landscape species.
It can be therefore both comforting and troubling to read about the challenges to other industries and past times.

Justus Stewart writes that “While not all of us are vegetarian, most of us are aware of the environmental implications of eating meat – and especially red meat. The environmental degradation associated with raising beef cattle in the United States is particularly troubling, and it came up recently in a conversation.”[1] Taken out of context, and used in conversation this becomes a red cape waved in front of an already agitated group of stakeholders.
But the salient feature is the next comment (my words in parenthesis): “Why do we eat beef (garden and plant alien species) in this country, anyway? Because, really, it makes no cultural sense (actually the author makes the case for the cultural sense, but we digress). There were no cows in America when Europeans landed here. The cattle we know today are here because we brought them here. This history lesson really messed with my head when I started thinking about it, as I realized how much of our culture, particularly the unsustainable aspects, come from thoughtlessly imposing an old culture into a new world, to which it was not well suited. Invasive species is an older idea than I realized. We eat beef (garden) because the English (Europeans) ate beef. We have lawns because the English (western Europeans) had lawns. Not just that they had them, but because beef and lawns were status symbols – they are relics of our ‘every man a king’ (the Garden of Eden story) defiance of an old social order. A signal that we no longer need to work the land in front of our houses just to feed ourselves; we no longer need to use the inexpensive bits of the animal (better steak than haggis, yes?).[2]

The coup de main with which gardeners can identify reads as follows: “This train of thought made me wonder, if sustainability requires more thoughtful living, can one solution be to localize a little further by ‘eating American’(planting American)? It is a small part of the large effort we are undertaking, but I am now personally attempting to eat an all-American diet (to garden with natives only). No beef (hybrid roses), but I will eat buffalo (plant cone flowers). No chicken (no Japanese pachysandra), but, but I will eat turkey (Allegheny spurge). I will eat corn and squash and salmon (plant Liatris, Tiarella, and Acer). These things, after all, were meant to live here. Raising native species requires little intervention (gads this will be tomorrow’s web posting..this is a horticultural fallacy on the surface as expressed, but the danger is assuming the truth without exploring the implications), little support. Could this be part of our push to restore the ecology of the United States? What would the benefit be of a nation that ate this way? Would it change our thinking about our stewardship of this land? Is there a wider application of the buffalo commons idea?”[3]

I want to be clear that I am not attacking Mr. Stewart’s position, because, at many levels, I agree with him. The problem is that he assumes and through assumption that all understand and are coming from the came philosophic base and thus can readily accept his premises. By wandering through various philosophic levels and blending them, he clearly reflects the moods and positions that are to be found, but he also gives rise to concerns of those whose perspective comes from a different place.

A final comment, the National Invasive Species Council’s Advisory Committee went to great lengths to provide a common definition of invasive species. Constructed to give a common starting point in discussion about invasive species, the white paper can be found at:

[1] Stewart, Justus, Worldchanging Essay: The All-American Diet., December 15, 2008
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid.

1 comment:

John said...

Maybe you're familiar with the work of Allan Savory on the use of grazing species in ecological restoration (

You're probably aware of the link between industrial agriculture and GHG emissions as well. Have a look at:

for some interesting maps and discussion about the climate dimensions of industrial livestock. Savory BTW argues that the problem lies with industrial feedlot production and not with grass-fed ruminants. Research is undoubtedly needed to settle the argument.

Coming back to your main point, the issue may not be whether native species are restored, but whether natural processes are restored. And some plants (and animals) are not conducive to the restoration and maintenance of such processes. As a gardener I want to be able to grow my hybrid roses and cabbages; I don't want to grow highly invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle.

I'm surprised and fascinated by the rapid advances of the locavore movement. In rural northern Virginia, you can find heirloom cattle, sheep, and turkey, as well as tomatoes, beans and apples. Most are not native species, but the represent the diversity of nature that permits calibration to specific places, unlike the engineering approach to food production, which hammers a square solution into a round hole in the interests of uniformity and portability. Interestingly, this mirrors the characteristics of the most successful biological invaders.

In short, love of the unique, the weird, and the local may be a bulwark against what is wrong with the world today. At least I keep telling myself that...