Should everyone start eating snakes to save the planet?

by ARKANSAS DIGITAL NEWS

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Pythons are farmed for meat in South-East Asia

Dan Natusch

What kind of meat is the most sustainable? According to a study of farms in Thailand and Vietnam that raise snakes for meat, it might be pythons.

When it comes to the efficiency of converting food into meat, snakes come out top, says Daniel Natusch at consulting firm EPIC Biodiversity. “No other livestock species studied to date possesses the same credentials or rates of production as pythons.”

Snakes have long been farmed on a small scale to produce specialist products, such as venom. Only recently have they begun to be raised primarily for meat.

Natusch’s team measured the growth of nearly 5000 reticulated and Burmese pythons (Malayopython reticulatus and Python bivittatus) over a year, along with what they were fed, plus the weight of their dressed carcasses – that is minus the skin, internal organs, head and tail. This was then compared with existing data on other animals.

According to the study, the dry mass of the food the pythons were fed was 1.2 times that of the dressed carcass, compared with 1.5 for salmon, 2.1 for crickets, 2.8 for poultry, 6 for pigs and 10 for beef.

The dry mass of the protein fed to the snakes was 2.4 times that in a snake carcass, compared with 3 for salmon, 10 for crickets, 21 for poultry, 38 for pigs and 83 for beef.

However, calculating how much food is converted into meat is notoriously tricky, says Kajsa Resare Sahlin at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. It is also essential to take account of what protein animals are eating and where it comes from, she says.

A key thing missing from the study’s comparison is the fact that as carnivores, snakes are eating animals that ate plants, whereas other farm animals eat mostly plants. If the total mass of plant material required per kilogram of carcass was compared, snakes might not look nearly so efficient.

Asked about this, Natusch says that what makes snake meat sustainable isn’t the efficiency of food conversion, but the fact that they are fed on waste meat, such as trapped rodents and stillborn pigs. This is made into sausages that the snakes eat.

“Livestock fed on plant protein sourced from a crop monoculture where a natural habitat once stood… is far less sustainable than capturing rodent pests or using waste protein to feed pythons,” says Natusch.

In fact, for this reason, he thinks snake meat is more sustainable than many plant-based foods. “For the vegans out there, in my experience, there would likely be more animals suffering from sowing crops into the soil each year than are killed to feed a python.”

If the snakes are being fed waste that wasn’t being used for other purposes, this would be an efficient use of resources, Resare Sahlin says. But wild rodents could refer to a number of species.

“If these are rats, then in the short term it could be beneficial to use them, but if a whole industry develops around this as a feed source, it will create perverse incentives to maintain ‘rat problems’ – and the implications for local communities could of course be vast,” she says.

So even though snake meat as it is currently produced might be more sustainable than many other types of meat, this study doesn’t show that it is inherently more sustainable.

But Natusch makes two other arguments in favour of snake farming. The first is food security. Many of the snakes chose to go for periods of up to 127 days without eating, yet lost just a few percentage points of body mass at most.

This means that farmers can stop feeding them for weeks or months if there are global shocks that interrupt supply chains, says Natusch.

The covid-19 pandemic was an example, he says. “Farmers could not sell their pigs, and it was too expensive to keep feeding them, so tragically they were just euthanised and composted. At the time we thought, ‘if only they were farming pythons’.”

Secondly, Natusch thinks farming snakes is more ethical than farming birds or mammals. Pythons don’t have the same cognitive capacity and choose to remain inactive in small confined spaces when they don’t need to find food, he says.

As for what python meat is like, it tastes like, well, chicken, says Natusch. “I’ve had it in curries, BBQ, as satay skewers and as biltong. If prepared well, it’s great.”

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