Python Meat Could Be a Sustainable, Nutritious Food Source, Scientists Say

The snakes may be some of the most resource-efficient animals to farm on the planet, a new study suggests

Burmese python in the grass
The scientists studied more than 4,600 Burmese and reticulated pythons on farms in Vietnam and Thailand. Carol Lyn Parrish / Florida Fish and Wildlife via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Move over, lab-grown meat: Python could be the food of the future. These scaly reptiles may be one of the most sustainable animals to farm on the planet, according to new research published last week in the journal Scientific Reports.

And as climate change threatens global food security, python farming could be one possible way to produce a source of protein with a relatively small environmental footprint, the researchers report.

“We really are running out of resources, whilst at the same time, the demand for high quality nutrients is going up,” says study co-author Patrick Aust, a conservation scientist at the nonprofit People for Wildlife, to ABC News’ Julia Jacobo.

Diners already eat snake meat in some regions of the world, including parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. In Hong Kong, for instance, snake soup is a popular dish, particularly during the winter. To help meet this demand, commercial python farms have been popping up in recent years.

“Reptile meat is not unlike chicken: high in protein, low in saturated fats and with widespread aesthetic and culinary appeal,” write the scientists in the paper.

Researchers were curious to know how farm-raised python stacked up against other types of livestock: How much food did pythons need to eat to produce a pound of meat for humans? This metric is known as the food conversion ratio.

After studying more than 4,600 Burmese and reticulated pythons on commercial farms in Vietnam and Thailand, they found the snakes had a more efficient food conversion ratio than salmon, pigs, cows, chicken and crickets. The snakes went long periods without eating but did not lose much of their body mass as a result; they also required very little water. On top of all that, they ate food that would not have been used otherwise, known as waste meat, such as wild-caught rodents and stillborn pigs.

“A python can live off the dew that forms on its scales. In the morning, it just drinks off its scales and that’s enough,” says co-author Daniel Natusch, director of the consulting firm EPIC Biodiversity and a herpetologist at Macquarie University in Australia, to the Washington Post’s Rachel Pannett. “Theoretically, you could just stop feeding it for a year.”

Two people standing next to rows of boxes full of snakes
Farmers can feed their snakes waste meat, such as stillborn pigs and rodents. Dan Natusch

The fact that pythons can fast for long periods without any apparent consequences could help farmers hedge against future supply chain disruptions, which are becoming increasingly common amid climate change. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, some swine farmers had to euthanize their pigs, because it had become too expensive to feed them or because meatpacking facilities were shut down.

“At the time we thought, ‘If only they were farming pythons,’” Natusch tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page.

When it comes time to butcher them, pythons are easy to fillet and produce very little waste, since they don’t have limbs. Snake meat—which can be used in soups, curries, sauteed on skewers, dried into jerky and barbecued—is similar in flavor and texture to chicken.

Pythons are also easy to farm. They get along with each other and are mostly sedentary when they don’t need to hunt for their own food. They also seem to tolerate small, confined spaces, and they seldom get sick with the viruses that affect livestock and poultry.

“They display few of the complex animal welfare issues commonly seen in caged birds and mammals,” the researchers write in the paper.

But many questions about farm-raised pythons remain unanswered. Perhaps the biggest one is whether Westerners would ever actually eat snake meat. It may be a “long time” before python burgers end up on menus in places like Australia, North America and Europe, says study co-author Rick Shine, a natural scientist at Macquarie University, in a statement.

Scientists also say more research needs to be conducted on the nutritional content of snake meat, as well as the broader environmental implications—and potential ripple effects—of commercial python farms.

For example, feeding them pest rodents may be sustainable, 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,” says Kajsa Resare Sahlin, a sustainable food researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center who was not involved in the study, to New Scientist.

The new paper is a good first step toward exploring python meat as a sustainable food, but “you need to complement that with a whole bunch of additional studies to look at these other aspects before you can really say, ‘Yeah, that’s an option,’” says Monika Zurek, a food systems scientist at the University of Oxford in England who was not involved with the paper, to Scientific American’s Meghan Bartels.

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