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Guinea pig: It's what's for dinner in Peru – and the US

Farmers in Peru boost their income by exporting guinea pigs to immigrants in the US.

By Chip MitchellContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 2006


Rosa Casimiro had always kept a few guinea pigs around the house. But her population started exploding last December. Now the single mother has 220 guinea pigs. And every month she brings another 70 or more to the market.

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Ms. Casimiro's family is among 360 households in Huarmey, a coastal region 160 miles north of Peru's capital, Lima, trying to lift themselves from poverty by breeding the furry critters. Her operation has already doubled her family's income. "The money pays for my 12-year-old boy's schooling," she says.

And, like thousands of other rural Peruvians who've turned to guinea-pig breeding, the Huarmey families are hoping to boost their earnings further by supplying the US guinea-pig market.

But the guinea pigs aren't pets. And they're not for testing new drugs. They're for dinner.

Agricultural economists say increasing exports of guinea pig meat – widely eaten in the Andean region – could take a bite out of poverty here. Guinea-pig meat is already gaining popularity in the United States, thanks to steady immigration from Peru and Ecuador. But there are hurdles, not least the repulsion among North Americans who regard the rodent as a laboratory animal or cuddly pet – not as a meal.

Cavia porcellus has played a vital role in Andean culture, medicine, and cuisine for more than 4,000 years. Today, guinea pigs remain an important protein source in highlands from Bolivia to southern Colombia.

Here in Peru, decades of urbanization have brought guinea pigs from the highlands to major cities. Families that don't breed their own can order the dish at restaurants, buy the meat frozen at grocery stories, or choose from thousands of live specimens at open-air markets. The country consumes about 65 million guinea pigs a year.

That industry is reaching new heights thanks to guinea-pig husbandry training organized by universities, nongovernmental organizations, and the National Institute of Agrarian Research and Extension, part of the Agriculture Ministry. In Huarmey, a three-month course last year brought in professors from La Molina National Agrarian University in Lima. They taught 80 local women state-of-the-art feeding and breeding techniques.

"Even the poorest family can afford to raise guinea pigs," says Gloria Palacios, who directs La Molina's small-livestock farm. They require less space and reproduce faster than other livestock, she says. And instead of expensive feed concentrate they can thrive on alfalfa, corn leaves, or even kitchen scraps.

Each Huarmey pupil received eight starter guinea pigs – one male and seven females. These aren't ordinary boars and sows. They're from an experimental breed developed over the last three decades. While traditional guinea pigs seldom exceed two pounds, the new breed can reach seven. And it grows more quickly.

The Huarmey course was a boon to the women, many of whom had been earning minimum wage (about $140 a month) from a Chilean company that harvests and packages asparagus. "They'd go to work with their kids on their back," Ms. Palacios says.

In a good month – guinea-pig sales are brisk before any holiday – the breeding generates about $300 for Casimiro, who supports her son and elderly parents on a five-acre farm. The family's only other income consists of her father's $100 monthly pension and a smaller amount from crops such as peas, corn, and alfalfa.

After the training, the women formed the John Paul II Small Livestock Breeders Association, which has grown to include 360 households. Now Casimiro, the association president, is looking for credit to bring more families into the project and break into the international market.