Editorial: Giant African opportunity, maybe?

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When you think of the Giant African Snail, you automatically think of all the negatives that have been associated with this invasive creature. It is, from the Antiguan perspective, a slimy pest that wreaks havoc wherever its trails lead.  
Most recently, the Ministry of Agriculture announced a National Giant African Snail Collection Day event to tackle the out-of-hand, over-population problem affecting our bit of paradise. It is actually two days but that does not make for a good poster headline so let’s not split hairs.  In any case, the original event was scheduled for mid-November but has been rescheduled for early December (2nd and 3rd). The goal of the event is to get as many people out collecting snails in an effort to cull the population, so please support.
If you are one of many battling the snails in your yard or farm, words from the head of the plant protection unit, Janil Gore-Francis, are obvious but true. She said, simply, “If we do not handle it this way, it will get worse.”  That is why her staff are encouraging everyone, including community and church groups to register to be part of the collection process – especially those who live in the hard hit areas with high snail infestation levels.
To give you an idea of the size of the problem our nation is facing: one adult snail lays about six clutches of approximately 200 eggs per year. The snails reach adulthood in six months and have an average life span of five to six years. If you decided to do the math, and you start with the tens of thousands of snails already in Antigua, you are very likely shaking your head at this point in time.  
Depressing, yes, but as Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”  The fact of the matter is, there is opportunity in those slimy critters.  One BBC video making the rounds on social media, tells the story of Ollie Thompson, who quit her corporate banking job in the big city to farm and sell snails. As Ms. Thompson puts it, “I found that there was a lot of demand and I have to meet it with supply.”  Well, when it comes to supply, we sure do have a lot of that here, so why not meet some of that worldwide demand with our supply and make a few dollars at the same time?  
The ‘snail lady’ is not the only one seeing opportunity in raising snails. Farmers in Nigeria are taking advantage of the global demand for giant African land snails and have gone into the business of snail farming. According to one farmer, aside from the culinary demand, the snail’s slime is used in cosmetics. As well, there is also a demand for snails as pets. Not something we would have thought but we can only presume that the slow motion of these animals are soothing to some, similar to goldfish or turtles.  
The point is, maybe we should be looking beyond the difficulties and seeing the opportunities. We do not hold out much hope that Antiguans and Barbudans will welcome the giant African snail into their diet but we should be open to that as well. After all, the Africans who eat the snails will tell you that it is simply a land conch or a big escargot – which the French has long established as a delicacy around the world.
And if you still thinking “yuck,” there are many more foods that we accept today that had to, at one point in time, had to fall on the far side of the plate. Think of mussels, whelks, oysters, tripe and maw, just to name a few. With the right seasoning, just about anything can become
a gastronomic delight. Remember, the dreaded lionfish was, at first, dismissed as ever having a chance at being part of our diet, but now it has become more widely accepted and can be found at a variety of restaurants.
Putting the local consumption aside, we should look into processing and export of the snails and/or their meat, even if it is only until we clean up the island. Then, if there is a market for the product(s), we can look into cultivation and diversify our agricultural stock. With good regulation and strict containment rules, the snails may prove to be a real money-maker.
Just in case we have piqued your curiosity and you are more gastronomically adventurous, google “giant African snail recipe” and you will be surprised at the results.  Seems like there is nothing that some salt, pepper, garlic and lime cannot solve. And we all know that you can stew and curry anything. See … you are thinking about it, aren’t you?  

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