This unusual superfood is good for the climate and incredibly high in protein

A study shows that pythons could be a highly efficient and sustainable alternative to traditional livestock, quickly converting feed into body mass and thriving on minimal resources, offering a potential solution to global food insecurity.

New research has revealed that pythons are an efficient, low-emission and climate-resilient feed source, demonstrating higher feed-to-protein conversion rates compared to chickens or cattle.

New research published in Scientific reports carried out in two commercial python farms in Southeast Asia led by honorary researcher Dr. Daniel Natusch of Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences found that pythons convert feed into weight gain remarkably efficiently compared to conventional livestock such as chickens and cattle.

“In terms of food and protein conversion ratios, pythons outperform all conventional farming spices studied so far,” says Dr. Natusch.

“We found that pythons grew rapidly to reach ‘kill weight’ within the first year after hatching.”

Snake meat is white and very high in protein, says Dr. Natusch.

The multi-institutional research team included scientists from Macquarie University in Australia and the University of Adelaide in the UK. University of Oxfordthe University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi.

The researchers compared reticulated pythons (Malayopython reticulatus) and Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) grown on commercial python farms in Thailand and Vietnam, testing the effects of different feeding regimes.

Dan Natusch

The lead author, Dr. Dan Natusch, handles an Australian water python, one of 39 different python species. Credit: Derek Henderson

Flexible solution for food insecurity

“Climate change, disease and dwindling natural resources are increasing pressure on conventional livestock and crop crops, with dire effects on many people in low-income countries who are already acutely protein deficient,” says Dr Natusch.

The failures of conventional agri-food systems that lead to widespread food insecurity are driving interest in alternative food sources, he says. “Cold-blooded reptiles … are far more efficient at converting the food they eat into more flesh and body tissue than any warm-blooded creature ever could.”

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

Python Farm

This research tested different diets on groups of pythons and found that pythons can achieve rapid growth rates. Pictured: Feeding trial at the python farm Credit: Dan Natusch

“However, although large-scale python farming is well established in Asia, it has received little attention from mainstream agricultural scientists,” says Dr Natusch. “Snakes require minimal water and can even live off the dew that settles on their scales in the morning. They need very little food and will eat rodents and other pests that attack food crops. And they were a delight, historically, in many places. Our study suggests that python farming that complements existing livestock systems can provide a flexible and efficient response to global food insecurity.”

Costs and benefits

Co-author Professor Rick Shine, from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences, says this is the first study to look in depth at the inputs and outputs, costs and profits of commercial snake farms.

“There are clear economic and adaptability benefits for farmers raising pythons rather than raising pigs,” says Professor Shine.

Snake farms are usually large barns surrounded by “sun traps” for sunbathing, which escape most of the complex animal welfare issues surrounding caged mammals and birds.

“Birds and mammals waste about 90 percent of the energy from the food they eat, simply by maintaining a constant body temperature,” says Professor Shine. “But cold-blooded animals like reptiles just find a place in the sun to warm themselves. They’re much more efficient at turning the food they eat into more flesh and body tissue than any warm-blooded creature.

Burmese Python

Farm Burmese pythons, pictured above, coexist peacefully in large groups. Credit: Dan Natusch

Hiding the broccoli

The research team tested groups of pythons on different “sausages” of residual protein from meat and fish trimmings, and found that intensive feeding of young resulted in rapid growth rates with no apparent impacts on welfare.

Although pythons were purely carnivorous in the wild, they could digest soybeans and other plant proteins, and some sausages included as much as ten percent plant protein, hidden among the meat.

“It’s kind of like hiding broccoli in meatballs to get your kids to eat their vegetables,” says Dr. Natusch. “We have shown that snake farms can effectively convert a lot of agricultural waste into protein, while producing relatively little waste of their own.”

When processed, about 82 percent of a python’s live weight yields usable products such as high-protein carcass for meat, valuable skin for leather, and fat (snake oil) and the gall bladder (snake bile) which have medicinal uses.

Kilo for kilo, reptiles produce far less greenhouse gases than mammals. Their robust digestive systems, which can even break bones, produce almost no water waste and far less solid waste than mammals.

Pythons can fast for more than four months without losing much weight and quickly resume growth as soon as feeding is resumed, so steady production can continue even when food is scarce,” says Dr Natusch.

“We also found some farms that outsource baby pythons to local villagers, often retirees who earn extra income by feeding them local rodents and scraps, and then sell them back to the farm within a year.”

Professor Shine says this study shows the extraordinary efficiency of reptiles in turning waste into usable products, highlighting great opportunities in countries where there is already a cultural precedent for snake meat.

However, Australia or Europe are unlikely to adopt python farming, he says.

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

Reference: “Python farming as a flexible and efficient form of agricultural food security” by D. Natusch, PW Aust, C. Caraguel, PL Taggart, VT Ngo, GJ Alexander, R. Shine and T. Coulson, 14 March 2024 , Scientific reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-54874-4

The study was funded by the Python Conservation Partnership, the University of the Witwatersrand Research Council and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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