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Snake or steak? Study says pythons could could save the meat industry

The current meat industry is affecting food security worldwide, but researchers say python farms could give a solution.
Snake or steak? Study says pythons could could save the meat industry
Posted at 8:02 PM, Mar 14, 2024

It's no secret that the meat industry has been devastating our environment for quite some time. 

It's responsible for high percentages of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, widespread deforestation, excessive freshwater consumption and other issues that don't sound too sustainable in a time of increasingly faltering agricultural systems.

To make a meaningful change, some environmentalists will say you should switch to a plant-based diet, but to the many people who just can't let go of their meat and potato dinner, that can be a hard ask.

So what if the environmentalists instead just recommended you switch the type of meat you're eating to, say, that of a scaly, slithery reptile? Well, new research claims that's precisely the type of Earth-friendly alternative meat we need to reduce the world's rising food insecurity.

In particular, the research, published in the journal Scientific Reports Thursday, states python-farming could offer a "flexible and efficient response" to the global issue, both in terms of the environment and human nutrition. 

Over a 12-month period, the researchers involved in the study analyzed two species of pythons — Burmese and reticulated — on farms in Thailand and Vietnam, where the snake meat is already considered a delicacy.

The results showed the large-bodied reptiles grew rapidly over their first year of life and required less food compared to other farmed livestock — including chicken, beef, salmon, pork and even crickets — to create more meat. Plus, their serpentine shape already lends itself to more meat itself due to their higher "edible carcass ratio" compared to other farm animals, the researchers said. 

On top of requiring fewer meals, the pythons could fast for long periods of time and not lose much of their body mass. They can also survive without fresh water for extended periods of time. This makes them more resilient to food and nutrition shortages and requires less labor from the farmers who raise them.

SEE MORE: Could you reduce meat consumption by 50% to help the environment?

Pythons are also more resilient in their habitats. The cold-blooded animals, which are 90% more energy efficient compared to warm-blooded animals, can go underground to avoid harsh weather, and when aboveground, they live highly sedentary lifestyles and display "few of the complex animal welfare issues commonly seen in caged birds and mammals," researchers said.

All of these survival characteristics, the researchers state, result in a more stable food system: A python's ability to retain its body condition in the event of a pandemic, an extreme weather event or just in the absence of a routine feeding structure means the reptiles give farmers the flexibility to adapt to unpredictable external factors, the study says.

And the switch won't put a ding in your nutrition either. The researchers said the reptile meat tastes similar to chicken, while also being high in protein and low in saturated fats.

But before you go raising a farm of pythons, the researchers note that python farming is in its infancy, and despite the slew of benefits they laid out in their study, it's likely differing cultural precedents will influence how the idea will carry into the future of meat alternatives. 

In the U.S., pythons are considered one of the "most challenging invasive species management issues worldwide," according to the U.S. Geological Survey

Meanwhile, in many Asian countries where eating reptiles is already a practice, the industry for farming them still remains small. But the researchers state that in these places — and in areas with increasingly compromised food security — the idea "urgently" needs more research to help sustain the global meat industry.

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