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Breeding rabbits for food and income

Rabbits have significant potential to improve the food security of small farmers around the world, according to a new FAO publication, "The rabbit: Husbandry, health and production". A relatively simple enterprise, "backyard" rabbit raising can produce modest income and help upgrade the family diet of rural and urban households with minimal input and labour costs.

The book is an encyclopaedic reference work and technical manual, covering world production and trade, nutrition and feeding, reproduction, genetics and selection, pathology, housing and equipment, rabbitry management, and production of rabbit skins and hair for textiles.

China: shearing an angora rabbit. Fur can be an important source of income for small farming families

"Backyard rabbitries are the perfect answer to today's demand for sustainable development projects," says René Branckaert, FAO livestock production specialist.

For several reasons, rabbits are unique among small animals for food and commerce:

  • they produce highly nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat rich in proteins and certain vitamins and minerals;
  • being herbivores, they do not compete with humans for their food and are easily adaptable to different environments;
  • investment and labour costs are low and rabbits can be cared for by the most vulnerable family members;
  • they are easy to transport and market for food, fur and skin;
  • they are highly productive, with short gestation and lactation periods (up to 40 offspring a year, compared with 0.8 for cattle and 1.4 for sheep).

Lingering taboos discourage rabbit consumption
But the book points out that there are considerable constraints to widespread rabbitry. It highlights the need for training in breeding and management techniques, as well as disease control.

Perhaps the greatest constraint to widespread rabbit breeding, however, is lingering taboos about eating rabbit meat. An FAO study in 64 developing countries found that 30 percent of people surveyed believed that social, religious or other reasons would not favour the development of rabbit production.

"Rabbit meat consumption is much easier to develop where people are already used to eating widely different kinds of meat, as from hunting," according to the book. "This would generally be true of sub-Saharan Africa. People with monotonous diets will find it harder to accept this new product. However, the example of Mexico, with its traditional diet of maize and kidney beans, shows a well-planned development campaign can do much to promote the necessary change in eating habits."

Along with governments and non-governmental development organizations, FAO has supported and developed rabbit production projects in various parts of the world, including Egypt, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Mexico, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe and the Republic of Congo.

Europe is centre of world rabbit production
To some, however, rabbit meat is a delicacy. The centre of world rabbit production is Europe, where demand is highest, accounting for 75 percent of world production. In 1990, total global production was estimated at 1.5 million tonnes. Italy was the top rabbit-producing country with 300 000 tonnes a year, followed by the Confederation of Independent States with 250 000 tonnes and France with 150 000 tonnes.

If cultural and other constraints could be overcome, the rabbit could emerge as an important low-cost answer to the problems of hunger, undernourishment and rural poverty.

"The potential is there," says Branckaert. "It just needs better diffusion. And a bit of convincing. Rabbit is an example of how poor farmers can obtain protein and income with minimal investment."

Illustrated with over 50 tables and 26 colour photos, "The rabbit" brings together all available data on husbandry, health and production. The 205-page publication may be ordered from the FAO Sales and Marketing Group, Information Division.

12 January 1999

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