Virus Pushes China’s Poor Rat Meat Farmers to Brink of Despair

Bamboo rat meat, a once profitable commodity China’s poor traded for quick returns, now risks pushing those farmers back into poverty.

Many local governments had encouraged impoverished citizens to breed the animal, offering financial incentives as part of poverty-relief measures. But Beijing has now clamped down on trading wild animals due to the coronavirus, potentially destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers.

“Many breeders are poor farmers living in mountainous areas, and have no other income,” said Cheng Bujun, who runs a rat farm in the Guangxi region. “Some of them are disabled or elderly who can hardly find jobs in cities.”

His company buys baby rats from these farmers who were given parent rats for free by local authorities, Cheng said. Breeding the rats is the only source of revenue for his contract farmers who live in a poor village in the southwest province of Guizhou, and the ban will return them to poverty, he said.

China has a target of lifting more than 5 million people in rural areas out of poverty by the end of this year, but the coronavirus epidemic, which is widely believed to have spread from a wild animal and seafood market in the city of Wuhan, could derail those plans. Stopping the bamboo rat meat trade alone puts an end to an annual business worth $1.4 billion.

“Some parts of China have been breeding bamboo rats for the last 30 years,” said Liu Kejun, a senior researcher with the Guangxi Animal Husbandry Research Institute. “Artificially-bred bamboo rats are different from wild ones” and should be strictly monitored, but not banned, he said.

Good Profits

The rats provide quick returns due to their low investment costs, and are the most effective way of getting farmers out of poverty, Liu said. The animals only eat bamboo and sugarcane and can be bred in small spaces. A rural family that rears 20 rat pairs can make 10,000 yuan to 15,000 yuan ($1,430 to $2,150) the following year, he said, way above the country’s poverty level and enough for a rural family to live on.

Since China last month moved to ban all wild animals for consumption, the agricultural ministry has been updating a list of exempt animals. Liu and large breeders sent a proposal to Beijing to ask the government to include bamboo rats on the list, according to a document seen by Bloomberg.

There are about 66 million artificially-bred bamboo rats in China. In Guangxi, the annual market value of the animal is about 2.8 billion yuan. Of the 180,000 breeders in the region, nearly 20% are from low-income rural families, according to the proposal.

Virus Concerns

Still, the prospect of bamboo rats being added to the list is slim given that the country’s top infectious disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, said in January that bamboo rats and badgers are among the wild animals that could be the source of the new coronavirus.

Farms that are breeding animals on the banned list will be shut down or compensated to switch to other businesses, Liu Yongfu, head of the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, said at a press conference on Thursday. Closing down the artificial breeding business won’t have a major impact on the country’s poverty relief target, he said.

Bamboo rat meat is popular in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi, and was once promoted as a top 10 delicacy for tourists to try when visiting the Jinggang Mountains.

A rat can produce 1.5 to 2 kilograms of meat, Guangxi Animal Husbandry’s Liu said. The meat can be stewed in soy sauce, or used in soups or barbecued.

“A table filled with bamboo rat meat dishes only costs about 300 yuan for six or seven people,” Liu said. “It tastes very delicious.”

— With assistance by Shuping Niu

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