Our planet is getting hotter and hungrier. Extreme weather events are having catastrophic impacts on human lives and our food systems are faltering. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need radical transformation towards agricultural resilience. Reptiles are environment-friendly hothouse specialists and a traditional delicacy for over a billion people. They might just be the sustainable livestock we are looking for.
A new report just released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that a 1.5℃ rise in global temperature is unavoidable. Doomsday media coverage of fire and floods is here to stay. So too are the more subtle knock-on effects of climate change – the quiet starvation of millions of people who depend on stable and predictable weather patterns for their food and livelihoods.
Malnutrition is increasing worldwide. A new report released by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) highlights the scale of the problem. Twelve percent of our global population are undernourished and 22% of children under five are suffering from stunting, mostly due to a lack of protein. Global food security is deteriorating and predicted to worsen with climate change, especially in low-income countries. Climate-driven famines, wars, and mass migration are on track to reach biblical proportions.
Reptiles require minimal food and water resources, produce few greenhouse gasses, and have unique adaptations for surviving extreme weather events. Commercial production systems are now well established in many parts of the tropics and there is growing evidence to suggest that farmed reptiles perform better than conventional warm-blooded livestock, especially when it comes to energy-efficient protein security in challenging environments.
For example, many reptile farming systems are immune to extreme heat. The ability of some reptile species to live both above and below ground provides excellent opportunities for farmers to buffer against heatwaves. Indeed, many farms already incorporate underground microclimates specifically to facilitate weather-independent thermoregulation.
Many reptiles are also immune to drought. Pythons for example, have a unique and highly specialised physiology that allows them to fast for months on end without any food or water. Compared to warm-blooded livestock, they are an excellent means of protein ‘banking’ in disaster prone regions.
And the benefits don’t end there. Because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) with a very different physiology to our own, reptiles offer a natural biological barrier to transmissible viral diseases such as Covid-19, bird flu and swine flu. Diversification of our livestock systems away from warm-blooded species not only saves on resources, it also helps to diminish the risk and impacts of zoonotic pandemics. Reptiles are also relatively cheap and easy to farm, and the meat they produce is highly nutritious; not unlike chicken. They are considered a culinary delicacy by many of the world’s leading cuisines; a mainstay of iconic Cantonese and Vietnamese dishes.
Cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens have all suffered the effects of decades of aggressive selective breeding and veterinary interventions. Maximum outputs driven by unlimited resource inputs have been the overriding production imperatives for generations. Modern meat chickens are now so deformed and fast-growing that they can barely walk, let alone fly. These hyper-domesticated ‘snowflake’ species typically perform poorly under the rigors of climate change. For the farmer, transformational change at this late stage in the game is proving environmentally, economically, and biologically almost impossible. Reptile farmers, on the other hand, are fundamentally better prepared. Production systems are more resource efficient and less polluting, and their reptilian subjects are genetically predisposed to the climate challenges ahead.
The last time reptiles ruled the world was 65 million years ago. At that time CO2 levels were 6 times what they are today and global temperatures were 4℃ warmer. Since the downfall of the dinosaurs, the extravagant economies of warm-blooded animals have dominated planet earth. The globalisation of European livestock and western dietary habits saw reptiles take a further step back. Now the winds of change are blowing again and Anthropocene storm clouds are on the horizon. Could this be time to reverse these trends and allow reptiles to once again take center stage?
The Namib desert is a hostile landscape by any measure. Reptiles like this Peringueys adder flourish here through a combination of resource efficiency, physiological flexibility and the ability to seek refuge underground. There is much we can learn from nature when it comes to livestock choices for an finite planet suffering from unpredictable and extreme weather events.