Common garden snails, a cherished culinary delight in Vietnam, are now becoming a major agricultural menace. Billions of snails -- particularly the big, imported, tea-cup sized gastropods known as golden snails -- are eating their way through the rice paddies that form the nation's mainstay.
Scientists have determined that 8 snails can consume 11 sq ft of rice paddy a day. Government circles are in a state of panic. "This is an epidemic, a catastrophe," says Vuong Quoc Tuong, a spokesman from the Vietnamese ministry of agriculture, in charge of the government's anti-snail campaign.
To halt further devastation by the snails, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet banned the breeding of golden snails last September. However, many smaller growers have ignored the ban, and heavy flooding in the Mekong river and in northern Vietnam helped the snails spread even more widely.
Debates are raging in scientific circles on how to deal with the deadly pests. The harsh insecticides that are effective in killing off snails also tend to kill off every other living thing nearby. As a temporary measure, scientists are advising farmers to place sieve-like bamboo gates in irrigation ditches to catch them before they can enter the fields.