Overstory #41 - Microlivestock
"Farm animals" to most Westerners usually means pigs, cows, goats, and sheep. Indeed, these same animals have been heavily emphasized by development projects. However, in many parts of the world, the major protein sources are not from these animals, but instead from "microlivestock"—small animals managed for food. There are over a thousand kinds of reptiles, rodents, insects, birds, and other small animals that can be categorized as microlivestock. Some of these, like the guinea pig, are highly domesticated and raised in close quarters with people. Others are only semi-domesticated, and live out on the farm or forest, like iguanas. Some microlivestock are currently collected from wild areas, with domestication projects underway, like the giant forest rats of Africa. Microlivestock have been essential to human nutrition for thousands of years. In the future, these small animals may be major players in food security, environmental conservation, and economic diversity.
Environmental Advantages of Microlivestock
The environmental destruction resulting from inappropriate use of large animals such cattle is well known. Microlivestock, in contrast, can occupy forest niches that large animals can not. For example, the green iguana, long an important food source for eggs and meat, has been semi-domesticated in Costa Rica. It can be a prolific producer, and thrives in both forest and farm environments. Food insects can also be a tremendously abundant resource from forested areas. In conservation areas as well as agroforests, microlivestock can enhance total yields and supply diversified products in a way that is compatible with trees and the environment.
Microlivestock can also be highly productive in environments that are not suitable for other kinds of animals, such as steep hillsides, highly degraded areas, and even urban environments. In some parts of the tropics, large introduced farm animals may not be suitable at all, while a local species of microlivestock may thrive. For example, in the hot, humid, seasonally flooded lowlands of some parts of South America, cattle are almost impossible to raise, being plagued by disease and malnutrition. However, the local capybara, a semi-aquatic rodent weighing about 100 pounds, thrives (although its large size stretches the definition of "microlivestock"!). Using locally adapted animals like these reduces the pressure to alter the environment dramatically in order to accommodate conventional livestock production.
Economic Advantages of Microlivestock
The use of microlivestock has many economic advantages over the raising of larger animals, particularly for the small farmer. Large animals by their nature must be bought and sold in large units. For example, saving up to buy a cow may take a very long time, and if an accident or illness befalls the cow, the entire investment is lost. A farmer who chooses microlivestock, in contrast, can invest in small increments. The investment can be spread out over a number of animals, reducing the risk of loss. Smaller animals tend to reach sexual maturity faster, and can reproduce quickly, expanding the investment. Many varieties of microlivestock can be raised in backyards or even inside the home, not requiring the larger spaces necessary to raise bigger animals. Production for home use or market can be distributed more evenly throughout the year, rather than all at once, resulting in a steady income that can be more easily controlled in response to market conditions.
Although many kinds of microlivestock can be used for subsistence, they can also be a good source of income. Most small-scale farmers cannot hope to compete in the market with large, high-input, single-species industrial systems. However, microlivestock producers can cater to specialized niche or exotic markets and get a good price for their product. For example, consumers in Ghana will pay up to three times more for the meat from a forest rodent called a cane rat or grasscutter (Thryonomys spp.) than they do for beef. Even in very affluent areas, health concerns about the high fat content of highly domesticated animal protein is adding to consumer interest in alternate protein sources. In European markets, specialty foods like ostrich meat and snails sell for premium prices.
Examples of Microlivestock
Rodents and rodent-like animals: Guinea pigs, capybaras, giant rats, cane rats (aka grasscutters), agouti, and rabbits are some examples of rodents used as microlivestock. Many rodents are highly adaptable and prolific, and can do well on a diet of weedy vegetation and kitchen scraps. Their meat is higher in protein and lower in fat than more conventional meat. Secondary rodent products, such as manure and fur, can also be important for farm use or to sell.
Food insects: Water beetles, palm grubs, grasshoppers, and agave worms are just a few of the over 2000 species of insects that are used for food. Insects are essential sources of proteins, fats, and important vitamins in many parts of the world. For example,100 grams of termites can provide over 500 calories of food energy, while bee larvae contains ten times more vitamin D than cod liver oil and twice as much vitamin A as egg yolk. Some insects are harvested from the wild, providing abundant food from degraded or marginal areas as well as forests; others are cultivated intensively. Some edible insects are important secondary products from agroforests; for example, in Irian Jaya, the sago grub (Rhynchophorus sp.) is cultivated as part of sago palm production. Insects take up very little space and can also fit naturally into agroforests. They are efficient producers of protein, needing less feed to produce more meat than any other kind of animal.
Reptiles: Some reptiles, such as alligators, crocodiles, and monitor lizards, are used for food and other products, although they may never gain wide acceptance as farm animals. Other reptiles are smaller and more user-friendly, like green iguanas and black iguanas. These smaller reptiles may become important, forest-friendly protein sources, for eggs as well as meat.
Birds: While the chicken has been emphasized, there are many other kinds of birds that are important food sources. Pigeons, quails, guinea fowl, and many others have been part of food production. Birds can be highly variable in needs and abilities, and are used differently. For example, pigeons are sometimes grown in urban environments, where they are released to scavenge for food out in the city, returning home to eventually feed their keepers. Other birds, such as some kinds of turkeys, are tough and forage in harsh or degraded environments.
Other promising species: Armadillos, snails, water deer, South America's microdeer, duikers (rodent-sized antelopes from Africa), and many other kinds of animals may be important for food security in the future.
Many kinds of microlivestock are best used locally, in their native environment. Any farmer attempting to introduce a new species should research carefully to be sure the species is adapted to local conditions, but will not become an invasive pest. Another challenge is to create a market niche for the product, which may involve overcoming consumer reluctance to try a product from an unfamiliar animal.
Microlivestock can fit well as components in agroforestry systems, increasing total yields and adding to food security.
MICROLIVESTOCK: Little-known small animals with a promising economic future by the Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID) 1991. A significant reference on microlivestock, highlighting 35 underexploited species.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #50--Animal Tractor Systems
- The Overstory #40--Bees in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #35--Animals in Agroforestry