Are Edible Snails a source of sustainable meat?

Scientists, governments, farmers, and environmentally conscious consumers are working hard to find ways to produce and consume protein-rich foods sustainably. Several options that seem unconventional today might become regular additions to our meals in the future. Could edible snails be one of them?

Several communities around the world consume edible snails as part of their traditional cuisine. The French Escargots de Bourgogne cooked with parsley and garlic butter, the Moroccan broth Babbouche, fried snails from Crete in Grece called Chochlioi Buburisti, Nigerian Peppered Snails, and Korean salad Golbaengi Muchim are some popular examples.

Edible Snails as food

Snails are gastropod molluscs that are found on land as well as in water. Of all the species found in the wild, not all are edible. Among land snails, Helix pomatia and Helix aspersa are commonly consumed.1 Ampullariidae, also known as apple snails, are freshwater snails eaten in many Asian countries.1 Several species of sea snails, such as whelks and abalones, are also consumed throughout the world. Snails are neutral to taste and take on the flavour of the ingredients they are cooked with. Their texture is firm and slightly chewy, comparable to that of squids and mussels. 

On average, snails contain 16 grams of protein per 100 grams of edible meat.1 This protein is considered to be of high quality because it contains all the essential amino acids required by the human body.2 The fat content in snail meat is comparatively lower than many conventional animal proteins whilst also providing a rich source of minerals like iron and calcium.

Wild Apple Snails are eaten in many South Asian countries.
Wild Apple Snails are eaten in many South Asian countries.

How does snail farming - or helicuture - work?

Like any other animals suitable for human consumption, land snails can be farmed as livestock. Rearing snails for human consumption is known as heliciculture. Snails are typically raised in pens.3 Depending on the size of the business, farmers may have different pens for different stages in the life-cycle of the snails. Activities involved in snail farming include feeding, maintaining hygienic conditions in the pen, checking soil quality, and recording development.3 It is important to ensure that pens are escape-proof because snails that escape the farm turn into agricultural pests and can have severe consequences for natural ecosystems.

On an average, snails contain 16 grams of protein per 100 grams of edible meat.
On an average, snails contain 16 grams of protein per 100 grams of edible meat.

Farmed snails are fed a diet of leaves, fruits, flowers, and kitchen scraps. Rearing snails requires a constant temperature, high humidity, and a fairly constant day and night rhythm throughout the year. This means that farmers outside tropical and subtropical regions need to invest in climate control systems for their (usually indoor) snail farms.3

What makes snail meat environment-friendly?

Compared to macro-livestock such as cows, pigs, and poultry, snails require fewer resources to grow and produce the same amount of nutrient-rich meat. The carbon footprint of snail meat is estimated to be around 0.7 kgs per 1 kg of edible meat.4 In comparison, the carbon footprint for beef, pork, and poultry is estimated to be about 18kgs, 6kgs, and 5.4kgs per 1 kg of edible meat, respectively.5 This lower footprint of snail meat is comparable to other sustainable animal-based protein sources, such as mealworms and aquaculture mussels.4 This can be attributed to several factors, such as the absence of enteric methane emissions, a better feed conversion ratio, and the ability to consume plant-based agricultural waste as feed.4,6 Like the shells of bivalve molluscs such as clams and oysters, snail shells can be used for various purposes, such as construction material, filtration media, and supplements for animal feed.4

Land snails can be farmed as livestock. Rearing snails for human consumption is known as heliciculture.
Land snails can be farmed as livestock. Rearing snails for human consumption is known as heliciculture.

Why aren’t we eating more snails?

The reasons consumers haven’t taken to eating snails on a large scale are similar to those stopping them from eating insects - lack of familiarity and cultural taboos. Since the demand is uncertain, farmers are hesitant to invest in heliciculture.3 For now, snail meat is more widely used as animal feed for poultry, pigs, and even fish. Indirectly, this helps in lowering the carbon footprint of meat produced from these animals since growing snails is more sustainable than several other types of animal feed.

Given the rising environmental cost of producing sufficient amounts of protein-rich food from traditional animal sources, consumers have gradually shifted towards plant-based sources, which are generally less resource-intensive.2 However, such a shift could adversely impact the nutritional state of the human population. To prevent this, it is important to identify alternative, abundant, and affordable sources of protein of animal origin.2 Already accepted among many cultures, snails make a strong case to become the next mainstream option for those seeking more sustainable animal protein sources.

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