This story is part of AlertNet's special report "Solutions for a hungry world"
By Emma Batha
LONDON (AlertNet) - The guinea pig has long been a popular dish in Peru, but scientists believe the humble South American creature could play a role in fighting hunger elsewhere, including in Africa where some communities have been breeding them for food.
Researchers working on a livestock project in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) three years ago were astonished to find families keeping the rodents, also known as cavies.
“I was very surprised to see them,” said Brigitte Maass, a scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. “We’re not sure how or when they got to DRC, but they have enormous potential to boost nutrition and improve rural livelihoods.”
She said cavies could provide a great source of cheap protein in DRC, which has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. The lean white meat is around 20 percent protein, more than beef or lamb, and the skin is more than 30 percent protein.
Researchers believe the fighting that has ravaged the east of the country for well over a decade may have encouraged people to breed the small animals as larger livestock are often looted. Cavies are easy to hide and light to carry if people are forced to flee their homes.
“In many, many communities cavies were the only animal that people kept for providing protein and also some limited income,” said Appolinaire Djikeng, a scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), who is leading the cavy research project. “They were mobile banks, as people referred to them.”
Djikeng said cavies had several advantages over larger livestock for poor households. You don’t need much investment to start breeding them and you don’t need land - most are kept indoors, which may explain why they have been almost invisible until now.
Cavies can survive on kitchen waste, so unlike grain-fed livestock they do not compete with humans for food. They reproduce quickly, with females giving birth to 10-15 young a year.
And there are no big threats from diseases as there are with poultry. Farmers also say their droppings make very good manure for crops.
“Cavies could have a significant role in improving food security in poor communities across Africa,” Djikeng said. “They are recognised as an important player for driving people out of poverty.”
NEITHER PIGS NOR PETS
No one knows how cavies got to Africa from South America but they are already being bred in a belt of countries from Ivory Coast in the west to Tanzania in the east.
However, it is not known how widespread they are in these countries as they are not included in livestock surveys and there has been almost no research.
Maass said it was important to call the animals cavies rather than guinea pigs, which was inaccurate and emotive.
“They are not pigs and do not come from Guinea. Also, to a Westerner, ‘guinea pig’ immediately gives you the image of a pet so many people consider it cruel to eat them. But it is not fair to discriminate … because these animals were originally domesticated in the Andes as an animal to be eaten.”
She said cavy was eaten in Europe at one point and it was no different to eating a rabbit, piglet or lamb.
In Africa, cavies are predominantly kept by women and children and provide an important source of income for them. Children often use the animals to pay for school fees.
In Tanzania, Maass said the animal’s small size and ease of handling made them popular in households headed by children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
Scientists are now trying to map the genetic diversity of cavy populations in Africa with a view to establishing breeding programmes. At the moment, farmers report a lot of inbreeding which in turn causes high mortality rates, Djikeng told AlertNet by phone from Nairobi.
Researchers also want to see if they can improve the weight of cavies by introducing tropical forages into their diets.
Maass, a forage agronomist, said cavies in Africa weigh around 500-600 grams (18-21 ounces), but they are usually underfed and could easily get to 800grams with a little more care.
One country that has started to recognise the potential of the cavy is Cameroon. It has established a programme to promote non-conventional livestock such as cavies, rabbits, grasscutters (a rodent) and snails.
“There is now significant recognition that not everyone will own cows, goats or sheep,” Djikeng said. “But people can quickly own these other animals, which to some extent will provide them access to income and nutritious food.”
Djikeng said they were helping Cameroon set up a Cavy Innovation Platform to encourage cavy production and share information. The forum will include policymakers, universities, agricultural research institutes, non-governmental organisations and farmers’ associations as well as hotel and restaurant entrepreneurs who can promote cavy dishes.
They plan to set up a similar platform in DRC in the coming weeks and eventually establish them in other countries.