Snakes are the New, High-Protein Superfood

Snakes are the New, High-Protein Superfood

According to new research from Macquarie University, farmed pythons could provide a sustainable and efficient new kind of livestock to increase food security.

A study of two Southeast Asian commercial python farms, led by Honorary Research Fellow Dr. Daniel Natusch from the School of Natural Sciences, discovered that pythons convert nutrition into weight growth more efficiently than conventional livestock such as chickens and cattle. “In terms of food and protein conversion ratios, pythons outperform all mainstream agricultural species studied to date,” according to Dr. Natusch. “We found pythons grew rapidly to reach ‘slaughter weight’ within their first year after hatching.” Snake meat is white and abundant in protein, according to Dr. Natusch.

The multi-institutional study team includes scientists from Macquarie University, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, the University of Adelaide, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi. The findings are reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Snakes are the new, high-protein superfood

The researchers studied reticulated pythons (Malayopython reticulatus) and Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) raised on commercial python farms in Thailand and Vietnam, examining the impact of various feeding protocols.

Flexible solution to food insecurity

“Climate change, disease, and diminishing natural resources are all ramping up pressure on conventional livestock and plant crops, with dire effects on many people in low-income countries already suffering acute protein deficiency,” according to Dr. Natusch.

Failures in existing agrifood systems, which have resulted in widespread food insecurity, are boosting interest in alternate food sources, he argues.

Snake meat is a sustainable, high-protein, low-fat food source that is already commonly consumed in Southeast Asia and China.

“However, while large-scale python farming is well established in Asia, it has received little attention from mainstream agricultural scientists,” said Dr. Natusch.

“Snakes require little water and can even survive on the dew that accumulates on their scales in the morning. They require very little food and will consume rodents and other pests that harm food crops. In the past, they were considered a delicacy in many locations.

“Our study suggests python farming complementing existing livestock systems may offer a flexible and efficient response to global food insecurity.”

Costs and benefits

According to co-author Professor Rick Shine of Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences, this is the first study to examine in depth at the inputs and outputs, costs, and benefits of commercial snake farms.

“There are clear economic and adaptability benefits to farmers who raise pythons rather than raising pigs,” says Prof. Shine.

“Birds and mammals waste about 90% of the energy from the food they eat, simply maintaining a constant body temperature,” adds Shine.

“Cold-blooded species, such as reptiles, just find a position in the sun to warm up. They are far more efficient than any warm-blooded organism in converting the food they consume into additional meat and body tissue.”

Hiding the broccoli

The researchers tested groups of pythons on various “sausages” made from waste protein from meat and fish off-cuts and discovered that intensive feeding of juveniles resulted in rapid development rates with no obvious welfare consequences.

Despite being primarily carnivorous in the wild, pythons can digest soy and other vegetable proteins, and some sausages include approximately 10% vegetable protein hidden amid the meat.

“It’s a bit like hiding broccoli in the meatballs to get your kids to eat their veggies,” Natusch, a pediatrician, explains.

“We showed that snake farms can effectively convert a lot of agricultural waste into protein while producing relatively little waste of their own.”

When processed, around 82% of a python’s live weight gives useable products, including the high protein dressed carcass for meat, the precious skin for leather, and the fat (snake oil) and gall bladder (snake bile), both of which have therapeutic properties.

Reptiles create significantly fewer greenhouse emissions than mammals. Their robust digestive systems, which can even break down bone, generate virtually no water waste and significantly less solid waste than mammals.

Pythons may fast for more than four months without losing much weight and quickly resume growing when fed again, allowing for consistent production even when food is short,” adds Dr. Natusch.

“We also found some farms outsource baby pythons to local villagers, often retired people who make extra income by feeding them on local rodents and scraps, then selling them back to the farm in a year.”

According to Professor Shine, this study demonstrates reptiles’ amazing efficiency in converting waste into usable products, indicating significant prospects in areas where snake meat is already culturally accepted.

However, he believes that Australia and Europe are unlikely to pursue python farming.

“I think it will be a long time before you see python burgers served up at your favorite local restaurant here.”