Rats a Solution in Food Crisis

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The global food crisis continues to fuel food price inflation and send many into hunger and despair. Around the world, solutions are being sought to the urgent need for more and cheaper food. Right now there are 862 million undernourished people around the world (FAO), and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for food production to increase 50 percent by 2030 just to meet rising demand.

The crisis is forcing many countries to turn to other food sources to feed their populations. As the price of poultry, cows, sheep,pigs and seafood rises, rodents are coming more and more into the picture, in particular, rats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat). For example, in Africa, farming the cane rat is seen as a better option than chickens, because they are easier to care for.

Using rats as a food source draws either disgust or amusement from many, but eating rat meat has a long history. Rats are being actively farmed and processed for food in countries as culturally diverse as Nigeria, Cambodia and India.

In Thailand, fast-food vendors are enjoying a rat boom, selling them poached, fried, grilled or baked. They claim they are tastier than other meats and are healthy because they come from rice fields.

In Cambodia, spicy rat dishes are increasingly appearing on menus as people can’t afford more expensive meats. Inflation has pushed the price of beef out of the reach of the poor. A kilogram of rat meat now sells for around 5,000 riel (US $1.22), up from 1,200 riel (US $0.29) last year.
But beef goes for 20,000 riel (US $4.88) a kilo.

“Many children are happy making some money from selling the animals to the markets, but they keep some for their family,” agriculture official Ly Marong told The Guardian newspaper. “Not only are our poor eating it, but there is also demand from Vietnamese living on the border with us.”

Cambodians have found it easier to catch rats as the rodents flee flooding in the Mekong Delta. Marong says Cambodia is exporting more than 1 tonne of live rats a day to Vietnam – a newly booming income source for the country.

In India, the secretary of the state for welfare in the state of Bihar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bihar) has called for more rat harvesting and eating to beat the rising prices of food. Vijay Prakash sees another benefit to rat eating: killing the rats will help keep the population under control and reduce the amount of grain stocks being devoured by the voracious little eaters.

At present, over 50 percent of Bihar’s grain stock is destroyed by rats.

Practical Prakash realises he has a sales job on his hands, and is currently meeting with hotels and restaurants to include rat on the menus and make the dishes appetising.

“Some socially deprived people in Bihar have always consumed rat meat. If they can eat rats, why can’t the rest of the people?” he told India’s The Week. “This will help in mitigating the global food crisis. We are sure that it will work wonders.”

In Bihar, the traditional rat eaters are called the Musahars – a group looked down upon as ‘untouchables’ in India’s caste system of social hierarchy – who have always made their living by hunting rats in the rice paddy fields.

“We’d like to have a network with other experts to boost the rat meat business” said Prakash. “We will encourage and help the Musahars to organize rat farms in order to commercialise rat meat. The government has decided to engage the Musahars in commercialisation of rat meat for their overall development.”

Estimates place the number of Musahars at 2.3 million people, many of whom are considered the most deprived and marginalised in Indian society.

While Bihar is in the north-east of India, rat eating in the South of India has reduced the amount of chicken eaten.

In the rural south-eastern part of Bangladesh, villagers have had to turn to rats as a food source because they have done so much damage to the local crops.

Deploying hill traps during the once-in-50-years bamboo blooming season, the villagers try to stop the rats from eating the seeds. The seeds are so nutritious for the rats, it causes them to breed four times faster than normal. The growing rat population then moves on to eating the local crops of rice, ginger, turmeric and chillies.

The rats are now so plentiful, they have become a major food source.

But as is being shown in Africa, rats, and in particular, cane rats, do not have to be a meat of desperation. Large cane rats have long been eaten as bush meat – a Food and Agricultural Organization report found rat made up over 50 percent of the locally produced meat eaten in some parts of Ghana.

Now a concerted effort is underway to change the perception of cane rat and even turn it into an exportable meat.

Cameroon’s first commercial cane rat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_rat) farm opened this year in the capital, Yaounde. It is meant to be a training farm to show others how to commercially raise cane rat for food. The feisty rats are very large, the size of a small dog. They are said to taste “succulent, tender, sweet.” Cameroonian rat-meat entrepreneurs are also very ambitious, telling the BBC they want to win people over to cane rat meat around the world. One day, they would like to see cane rat as an acceptable meat that can be served on airplanes and in the finest restaurants.

Pioneering work in developing techniques for breeding cane rats in captivity has been going on at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria (http://www.ui.edu.ng/) since 1973. It has been so successful, commercial large-scale rat farming is growing in Southern Nigeria.

Farmer Ade Olayiwola of Ibadan, Nigeria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibadan) told the Tribune Agriculture journal that cane rats are a high-profit, low-stress animal to farm.

“It is more assuring than the poultry business which could bring fortune to you in the day, but could also bring unexpected problems suddenly, to the extent that if care is not taken, one may run into serious financial crisis as well as other problems,” he said.

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