by Marion Nestle
Apr 29 2024

More on snakes: from culinary marvels to conflicted science

Last week I posted a debate about the health and environmental consequences of eating snakes, mainly because it never occurred to me that anyone would take it seriously.  I thought it was funny.

Shows you what I know.  Busted.

The eating-snakes-is-sustainable position was based on a study that I obviously had not read.

But a reader, Michael Tlusty, did.  He says the paper raises two issues.

His first has to do with the newsletter that posted the story,  He says:

Nowhere in the story does the reporter link to the actual research paper (Natusch, D., Aust, P.W., Caraguel, C. et al. Python farming as a flexible and efficient form of agricultural food security. Sci Rep 14, 5419 (2024). – I see this a lot – why can’t journalists properly acknowledge scientific efforts?

His second is a critique of the study methods.

they compare ectotherm farming of snakes to that of salmon – however, the data for salmon farming comes from 2011 and 1998. There have been significant improvements since then, so they are biasing their analysis to favor the current snake data. Furthermore, I doubt that salmon would be the substitute for snake. Species more like tilapia and carp would be, and these fish can be fed with completely vegetarian diets. So yes while the invasiveness of pythons is a primary con as you point out, the authors inflate the benefit of snake eating relative to other more substitutable foods.

And then comes the kicker—the reason why I am posting this on Monday when I usually post items about conflicted science.

 And in the spirit of your newsletter, in the ethics declaration on the paper, it states “This work was partly funded by an initiative working to better understand snakes used in the leather trade, which is itself partially funded by companies that use snake skins. ” – so this is an attempt to make luxury snake skin items more “palatable” by turning snake farming into a food security argument.

I am always grateful to hear from sharp-eyed readers, even when they catch me violating a firm principle that dates back to my time in molecular biology graduate school: Always read the original paper.  No exceptions.

As I said, busted.

On a lighter note, it turns out eating snakes is a thing (maybe you knew this already?).  According to this week’s New Yorker, it’s a sign of masculinity in Oklahoma.  I commend this article to your attention: How to Eat a Rattlesnake.

Thanks to Jennifer Wilkins for sending it.  She, by the way, has a new Substack: Eat Right Here.

Addition: Can we really eat invasive species into submission? (thanks to Stephen Zwick for sending)