Uncoiling the future of food: Scientists say snake might be the solution for sustainable protein

And why python meat isn't already common in the United States

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 1, 2024 12:30PM (EDT)

Ball Python in a bowl of pasta (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ball Python in a bowl of pasta (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As climate change continues to shape and threaten global food security, both advocates and scientists are consistently on the hunt for viable solutions — and, according to a new study from the journal Scientific Reports, a potential new frontrunner has slithered into the mix. 

As researchers write, commercial python farming could provide a “flexible and efficient” form of sustainable protein, while producing relatively little waste, especially when compared to conventional livestock. “Livestock production traditionally has relied on a small number of domesticated species and production models — a little-changed formula that until now has served humanity well,” the study authors write. 

However, those traditional livestock and plant crop systems are faltering, they write, as diminishing natural resources, infectious diseases and increasingly catastrophic weather events have led to the urgent need to explore more sustainable and resilient alternatives. That’s where pythons come in. According to the report, ectotherms, or cold-blooded animals, are approximately 90% more energy efficient than warm-blooded animals and, in the context of agriculture, “this energy differential readily translates into a potential for higher production efficiency.” 

As such, after studying more than 4,600 Burmese and reticulated pythons on commercial farms in Vietnam and Thailand, researchers found the snakes had a more efficient food conversion ratio than salmon, pigs, cows, chicken and crickets. They conclude that while commercial python production is in its infancy, it offers “tangible benefits” for sustainability and food systems resilience, which raises the question: Why don’t we currently eat more snake meat in the United States? 

Snake meat isn’t uncommon in other parts of the world. In Vietnam and Thailand, where the researchers conducted most of their work, pythons are raised and then prepared in a variety of ways, ranging from slightly brackish python soup to spiced curry. In South America, especially Brazil and Colombia, charbroiled snake meat is a relatively pedestrian street food. Rattlesnake is also eaten in various forms — stewed, ground into sausage or grilled and wrapped in a tortilla — across the Southwestern United States, though it doesn’t have wide-spread commercial appeal. 

A large part of this is a PR problem. 

"Beware of rattlesnakes, as they can still bite you after they are dead due to a reflexive action of the nervous system."

In many Western cultures, snakes are perceived as being unhygienic and dangerous enough to completely warrant avoiding their consumption. This perception goes back millenia, as both Jewish and Christian Old Testament scriptures dictated that snakes were “unclean” (not to mention reminiscent of Satan masquerading as a serpent in Genesis) which meant that they shouldn’t be eaten by the devout. Even as some have relaxed those religious guidelines, eating snake is still largely regarded as something you do to just survive, be that because of poverty or circumstance. 

“Trying to kill a snake is a last-ditch survival effort and one that I don’t recommend unless the situation dictates it due to the risk of snakebite,” wrote Tony Nester for Outside in 2010. 

He continued: “Beware of rattlesnakes, as they can still bite you after they are dead due to a reflexive action of the nervous system. Lopping the head off, burying it, and then skinning and cleaning the snake are the recommended methods established by the military and used by survivors.” 

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Not particularly enticing, right? In recent decades, however, some chefs have been slowly putting snake on the menu, both as a way to stretch their culinary skills and as a way to reinforce the idea publicly that there is a need for more sustainable foodways beyond factory-farmed beef and chicken. 

"People have a very visceral reaction to certain critters here, snakes being one of them," Gabe Hernandez, a Texas-based chef, told The Austin Chronicle in 2015. “There are a lot of animals out there, proteins out there, that we don't touch. If we start to look at these as potential for protein on our plates, we can alleviate some of the problems with overfarming tension with our more traditional farm situation." 

The researchers in this study likened python to another familiar protein: “Reptile meat is not unlike chicken: high in protein, low in saturated fats and with widespread aesthetic and culinary appeal.” 

Beyond the personal and cultural reasons snake isn’t commonly eaten in the United States, we also don’t have the practical infrastructure necessary to currently farm pythons at scale, something critics of the study say needs to be considered. 

For instance, Kajsa Resare Sahlin, a sustainable food researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center who was not involved in the study, pointed out in New Scientist that while pythons may help take care of pest rodents, “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.” 

“I think it will be a long time before you see python burgers served up at your favorite local restaurant here,” study co-author Rick Shine, a natural scientist at Macquarie University, said in a statement.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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