Food and drink: At a snail's pace 

New food demands mean re-thinking old food supplies

With hunger on the rise worldwide for the first time in decades, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization is counting on increased agricultural aid along with improved agricultural crops - read, genetically modified crops - to feed the one in six people in the world who are undernourished.

Up until last year, steady gains had been made since the late 1960s in reducing the percentage of people suffering from chronic undernourishment. In light of this unfortunate reversal, it's high time to reconsider simple, seemingly unlikely sources of nutrition.

The first on the list is a bit of a sleeper, one with an impressive record in the history of humanity's systematic food systems, albeit one that's not immediately top of mind - the humble snail.

Raising snails and eating them - or escargots, if the term "snail" doesn't quite cut it for you - goes back eons. In fact, Felipe Fernández-Armesto in his wonderful book, Near Thousand Tables: A History of Food , posits that it may well have been the snail and other mollusks - not deer or other game - that were first herded and bred for food.

This, of course, is something like sacrilege amongst food historians who have traditionally painted a picture that it was the four-legged animals they hunted that early man first captured and bred to more easily put food, well, if not on the table, then at least in the pot.

While it's true this was commonplace, it may not have been the start of all creatures bred and small.

People living in the northeastern woodlands of pre-Columbian North America used fire to thin out trees to make it easier to hunt their game - turkey, elk, beaver, quail, grouse and porcupine. Similarly, aboriginal peoples in Australia used fire to herd kangaroos into pens and corrals for slaughter.

Some aboriginal people then learned to breed the penned animals for food. But Fernández-Armesto is quick to caution that we shouldn't presume this was an obvious progression, or the first step in the systematic production of animals for food. For one thing, not every group of people was into looking after animals full-time.

Others, like the ancient Inca, practised a kind of early selective breeding, releasing the best animals they hunted back into the wild to improve the stocks. Pretty much the reverse of what hunters today practise and pretty smart.

So where do snails fit in to the food supply chain? Fernández-Armesto points out that much evidence exists supporting the idea of snails as an early - if not the earliest - systematically bred food supply.


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