Mar 23, 2023
Sustainability in a Shell: How Snail Farms are Providing a Low-Impact Protein Alternative
At the end of May, I attended the NovelFarm conference in Pordenone, in northern Italy. While at the conference, I was invited to visit a local snail farm. Having attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to raise snails previously in California, I was very interested in visiting this farm.
I imagined a high-tech indoor operation with gleaming stainless steel surfaces, scientists in white coats racing around, and small vats of snail caviar readying for sale. The reality was completely different, but more interesting than I could have imagined.
Arriving at Mattia’s farm, located just outside of the small town of San Martino al Tagliamento, neither were there buildings, nor were there scientists or snail caviar.
Mattia Marinello is a first-generation snail farmer, farming snails outdoors in large, outdoor pens.
The operation produces certified organic snail meat, snail slime, and related beauty products. The farm likely has a minimal carbon footprint - certainly much smaller than other forms of farmed meat. Mattia had worked in the food industry prior to launching his snail farm, and during that time, he developed a passion for high-quality food and ingredients.
The farm is relatively new, starting less than a year ago in August 2021. It is located on 1.2 hectares of land upon which Mattia has created 38 pens, each 120m2 in size. Setting up the farm was a challenge for Mattia - the physical labor was exhausting, and additionally, Mattia was not familiar with plowing, crop production, or other farm procedures. So, he has had to learn all of this “on the fly.”
At the farm, the snails live and graze on beds of chicory plants. Pens are irrigated regularly with overhead sprinklers to keep a moist environment that snails prefer. They congregate under wooden structures when it is hot out and come out to feed on the chicory in the cooler morning and evening hours.
While Mattia isn’t sure about the number of snails he has on this farm, he shares that each snail will reproduce 5 or 6 times per year and lay up to 200 eggs per reproduction cycle. So, if the conditions are correct, populations will increase pretty quickly.
Mattia is getting great reception from restaurants and cosmetics companies.
Snail slime is extracted in a cruelty-free manner (shown here) as snails enjoy a nice jacuzzi-style bath. The slime is used in various beauty products that the farm markets and sells in their own cosmetics product line.
The snails themselves sell for about 15 euro per kg and appear on menus of 3 local restaurants. Mattia says that snails used to be a regular food item in Italy, which people collected and prepared themselves. Now, they are scarcely found on restaurant menus, but are once again increasing in popularity. For context, according to the International Institute for Heliculture, based in Cherasco, Italy, there is a production gap of 3800 hectares of snail production.
Snail protein production has been found to have only a fraction of the carbon footprint of other types of protein.
According to Tuscia University’s findings, the footprint of outdoor snail production is about 0.7 kg of CO2 per kg of edible meat. In comparison, the footprint of beef is 18 kg (25.7x), pork is 6 kg (8.5x), and chicken is 5.4 kg (7.7x).
Additionally, Mattia’s snails dine on food waste that Mattia collects from around town. This circular approach annually takes 60,000 kilograms of food waste that would have either rotted in a landfill or have been composted, and instead diverts it to protein production.
After my visit, I followed up with Mattia for a short interview (this content has been translated from Italian).
DC: How large is the farm?
MM: The farm is about 12,000 square meters, with 38 enclosures of the size of 40x3 meters and an area for supplementary feeding in which I grow sunflowers, melons, and pumpkins.
DC: What inspired you to start a snail farm? Was this something you have been considering for a long time?
MM: The interest in snails was born when my father, many years ago, told me about snail breeding. I studied Economics and Marketing in the Agro-industrial System at my Alma Mater University of Bologna, and, during that period, I realized that breeding snails was the right activity for me. During my studies, I deepened my knowledge and collected a lot of information for about two years.
DC: What do you most like about being a snail farmer? What do you most dislike?
MM: I like being a snail breeder because I strongly believe in the ethics of this activity. I am convinced that snails will be one of the foods of the future because they are a protein source with a low environmental impact. I like it because I feel I'm doing an activity that is good for the world. What I like least is spending a lot of time alone.
DC: You mentioned that you feed food waste to your snails. How much food waste do you need to acquire per day to feed your snails? What types of food waste do you give them?
MM: To feed the animals, I use about 1,200 kg of vegetables per week (about 30 kilograms for each pen). I use any type of vegetable or fruit that I find as waste from processing companies or distributors; the only important thing is that there is no rotten fruit that could lead to mold inside the farm. Fruit or vegetables rich in water must always be checked because they rot quickly and therefore must be removed promptly to avoid rot. The waste is usually cut into small pieces to be distributed amongst more of the beds.
DC: You mentioned that mice and rats are a problem. How do you keep birds from eating the snails?
MM: Birds eat snails (especially magpies and crows). To prevent this, you can use a net cover or use an acoustic barrier. I am fortunate that in my area, many hawks keep other birds away.