Kim Severson writing in today's New York Times
considers the proposition that the way to save a species from extinction is to convince people to eat it. If they love it they will demand that it be preserved.
I've been mulling over this proposition for a long time beginning, I think, in the late 1970's when I began formal studies in ecology and the forces that control plant and animal distribution. The proposition seems reasonable enough until you scratch beneath surface and realize that while it may work for heirloom varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals, when it is applied to wild plants and animals encouraging people to eat things does not in any way guarantee their survival.
Take the domestic cow (Bos taurus) for example, an animal that now one would argue is in danger of extinction. All domestic cattle have been bred from the Auroch a wild ancestor (Bos primigenius) that lived in Europe until it was hunted out of existence in the 17th century. Populations of widely eaten species of wild fish such as cod and redfish are under intense pressure from overfishing and some will doubtless become extinct. The ancestors of the domestic chicken still exist in the wild, but their genomes have apparently been altered due to accidental cross-breeding (back-breeding) with domesticated birds.
Wild plants and fungi that are prized at the table fare no better. Foraging for gastronomically prized species of plants like ginseng and mushrooms like chanterelles, morels, truffles puts intense pressure on natural populations and in no way guarantees their survival. Frankly, there are thousands of species of plants, fungi, and animals that have been driven into extinction because people liked to eat them. And those that have been "preserved" because they have been farmed or husbanded, are in many cases so genetically distinct from their wild ancestors that if one of those ancestors would suddenly reappear, it would not be able to breed successfully (produce fertile offspring) with it's domesticated form. This would almost certainly be the case with the domestic cow Bos taurus, and the auroch Bos primigenuis since they are recognized as separate species.*
I think that once humans came on the scene, the game was pretty much over for anything that got in the way of our appetites. Once we choose to eat some wild thing, it is either doomed to extinction or we work on it's mutability until it becomes something else. Of course, there are many exceptions. It's not a plant or an animal but the algae that is used to make nori exists abundantly in the wild, and then there is...ah...er...better stop while I'm behind.
* A species is an organism that can breed "normally" (without help from us) with other organisms of the same species and produce fertile offspring.
Actually, the fertility-of-the-offspring test is often more important in determining if two organisms represent a single or two separate species. For example, a donkey (Equus asinus) and a horse (Equus caballus) are considered to be separate species because even though they can breed without our help, their offspring (mules) are always sterile.