Rodents and other small mammals can serve as more sustainable alternatives to processed meat. But obstacles such as farming challenges, health and safety regulations, and cultural dislikes can pose challenges to expanding consumption.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), commercial animal husbandry accounts for 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial livestock farming is also associated with problems such as poor animal welfare, deforestation and resource pollution.
But cooks and farmers are considering promising alternatives like rabbits. Other small rodents such as cane rats, squirrels and guinea pigs can fill similar roles. In France, rabbit is a staple on restaurant menus, while in Benin, rodents, including porcupines and squirrels, are a safe source of food. Across Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, guinea pigs, known as cuy, are a common ingredient in many homemade dishes.
There is evidence that some of these animals may offer more sustainable protein options. A recent study from the IOP Conference Series on Earth and Environmental Science journal finds that rabbits emit fewer greenhouse gases than other livestock. The FAO also notes that rabbits are particularly efficient at converting food into protein. In Peru, policymakers and farmers are finding that guinea pigs require very few resources to thrive, avoiding common husbandry problems such as deforestation and land conversion.
Hunting invasive or overpopulated species can also provide environmental and financial benefits. dr Heather Eves, a professor of wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, tells Food Tank that many African farmers hunt cane rats in their fields. As a source of food, income, and pest control, Eves says, hunting these animals is “hugely important to people living on the edge of our world. It provides them with the basics of survival.”
Despite the popularity of these animals as a food source in some countries, they are less common in others, including the United States. It is not known how many of these animals Americans consume each year. The latest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey of rabbit production in 2007 found that just under 1 million rabbits were sold for meat, compared to 167 million chickens that year. Without widespread demand, selling these animals can be challenging for farmers.
Many who see this meat as unfamiliar or novel may also associate it with poverty, says British chef and cookbook author Valentine Warner. He tells Food Tank that decisions about what to eat “drop down to a very emotional level.” Foods with negative connotations can repel eaters, he says, which could discourage them from making more sustainable or diverse food choices.
In the past, Warner often prepared meals using animals he hunted, including rabbits, deer, and small birds, and emphasized the value of “creating an environment on a plate.” But he expresses deep concern about the pressure humans are putting on these animals to meet the needs of the eaters. Warner mentions that he is now extremely selective when hunting: “I will not raise a weapon to an animal that has no choice but to cross my path.”
Production challenges can also pose obstacles to increasing consumption. Eves explains that experiments to breed cane rats in West Africa have largely failed despite decades of attempts. She says farmers are struggling to manage the training needs and material costs. “If [farming cane rats] If it were profitable, feasible and sustainable, it would have started long ago,” she told Food Tank.
Another challenge is the high disease rates in useful mammals. A recent study of rabbit farms in the European Union (EU) found mortality rates between 25 and 30 percent.
The lack of regulations for the breeding of these animals can also lead to public health risks. Eves, an expert on the bushmeat trade, notes that breeding many of these animals would require domestication. “We keep mixing wildlife with domestic animals and humans, and this soup causes disease,” Eves tells Food Tank. Without thorough regulation and inspection, she says, these animals can carry zoonotic diseases that lead to outbreaks like COVID-19.
“Rabbit farming practices in Europe today are as terrible as chicken farming used to be [the United Kingdom] 40 years ago,” Warner laments the large-scale industrialization of animal husbandry.
Eves also wonders how to maintain ecological health while expanding production practices: “How can we continue to support people’s needs but live off the landscape in a way that is healthy for the ecology of that landscape?”
“Like everywhere, sourcing things is absolutely critical,” Warner tells Food Tank, proposing a guiding principle rather than a quick fix for more sustainable eating. Whether it’s a rat being hunted for meat or packaged rabbit drumsticks from the supermarket, the key to eating more sustainably is respecting how food gets to your plate, Warner says.
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Photo courtesy of Aswathy N, Unsplash