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February 16, 2010

Guinea pig touted as solution to Congo food crisis

by Todd Pitman

An army of humanitarian organizations has been unable to end years of recurring hunger in conflict-torn Congo. Now a South American research group says it may have found another way to fill hungry bellies: with guinea pigs.

The small rodents could provide war-battered villages with "a much-needed source of protein and micro-nutrients in a country with some of the highest incidences of malnutrition the world," according to the Colombia-based agricultural research institute, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT.

Congo's hilly east has been plagued by violent turmoil since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled war across the border, displacing millions of people and sparking years of skirmishes between soldiers, rebels and militia from both nations.

It's not known how or when guinea pigs — native to South America — arrived in Congo, but CIAT researchers discovered them last year being kept as "micro-livestock" in the nation's hard-hit North and South Kivu provinces, which border Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

"Small and easy to conceal, guinea pigs are well-suited to (Congo's) conflict zones, where extreme poverty and widespread lawlessness means that the looting of larger domestic livestock is commonplace," the group said in a statement.

The furry animals have other advantages: they can be fed kitchen waste and are a relatively low-cost investment compared to other livestock. Crucially, they reproduce quickly, with females giving birth to multiple litters that total 10 to 15 offspring per year.

"They also suffer from fewer diseases than pigs, chickens and rabbits, and in the event of disease outbreaks, their high reproduction rate means populations have a much shorter recovery time," the group said.

Guinea pigs are widely eaten in parts of South America, notably Peru. The taste of the rodent has been compared to pork, dark chicken meat and rabbit. The rodents are not a common sight in rural Congolese households, unlike chickens, goats and other domesticated animals.

CIAT scientists have been investigating ways to boost livestock production through a project funded by the German government which had originally targeted pork and poultry. It has now been expanded to include guinea pigs, with trials underway in four South Kivu villages to try to find ways to improve the quantity and quality of the meat.

"None of the scientists had contemplated guinea pigs as an option in (Congo) when the project started," said CIAT's Michael Peters. "Now they really could turn out to be indispensable."

AFP

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