Visit an Andean village, and you have a decent chance of seeing a few cuy — also known as guinea pigs — running around homes.
These aren’t pets. If you stick around that village, you may very well be served one for dinner.
Cuy is a dish served in many parts of the Andes on special occasions — roasted whole as pictured above. Increasingly, it’s also a tourist favorite for those who fashion themselves in the model of Andrew Zimmern (of television’s Bizarre Foods).
One person’s “bizarre food” is another person’s hamburger, of course.
That aside, raising and eating cuy makes good ecological sense. But how, you ask?
Lately, meat consumption has been portrayed as a big “no-no” for those wanting to lower their carbon footprint. But there are a number of ways to enjoy your meat without a guilty conscience. One of those ways is small livestock — poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs — raised on a small scale.
Guinea pigs don’t require a lot of space. They’re quite happy to roam around a home and eat plant clippings.
In Ecuador, the Conservancy and partners are working to provide incentives to protect clean water for cities like Quito by conserving land along the watershed. To do so requires a reduction in cattle ranching to lessen erosion.
On some Ecuadorean properties, ranchers have now supplemented their income by raising guinea pigs. This agriculture requires no deforestation or land conversion. It simply requires a backyard or even a home.
And across the United States, backyard poultry advocates are encouraging more chicken-friendly cities. Even two or three chickens can provide eggs for you and your neighbors. (And they’re easy to raise).
Chickens can easily be raised for meat on a vacant lot — land that otherwise would not be used for food production.
My neighbor Mary Rohlfing of Morning Owl Farms has one of the largest duck egg farms in the country, as well as plenty of Thanksgiving turkeys, on just a few acres. Such farming is also a much lovelier use of land than the suburban sprawl that is enveloping everything around it.
All around the world, we could raise meat and eggs in backyards and back lots -- a good use of space and a good way to produce meat in a humane, local, low carbon way.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, roast cuy is delicious, with rich, dark, slightly stringy meat. (And no, it tastes nothing like chicken.)
(Image: Roasted cuy. Credit: Matt Miller/TNC.)