How Rabbits Can Save the World (It Ain’t Pretty)

With no religious taboos against consuming bunny meat, the animal may be a key ingredient in the fight against hunger. It also can be raised grain-free.

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David McNew / Getty Images

A desert cottontail rabbit forages near a desert marsh in Morongo Valley, Calif., April 11, 2007.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that rabbits reproduce at a rapid rate. But did you know that rabbit meat is kosher, halal and acceptable for Hindus who decline beef for religious reasons? All of that is good news for the world-wide war on hunger—if bad news for bunnies.

Dr. Steven Lukefahr has been an avid advocate of rabbit-raising ever since his parents showed him how to raise them for the family dinner table as a young boy. He has spent his career touting rabbit as a solution for protein-energy malnutrition in the developing world. Rabbits, Lukefahr points out, are easy to raise, procreate, er, like rabbits , are relatively disease-free, more easily digestible than some other proteins, are low-fat and have a pleasant taste. While wild rabbits are a little gamier, domestic rabbits taste—okay–a lot like chicken and can be adapted to a wide variety of international culinary tastes.

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“There are no known taboos against eating rabbit,” Lukefahr says. Eating it during Lent was even condoned by Pope Gregory I who proclaimed in the year 600 that rabbit meat was not meat at all. According to Harvard‘s Broad Institute, the papal proclamation led to a boom in cuniculture (rabbit-raising) in France‘s monasteries. No wonder the rabbit still has a role on the kitchen tables of France, Italy and Spain, the southwestern region of Europe that is the birthplace of the modern, domestic rabbit.

But perhaps the most important element in popularizing rabbit production is that the animals can be raised on a grain-free diet. In a world of rising prices and increasing demand for grain, the ability to raise a good protein on garden forage is a plus in poor countries. Lukefahr’s first two-year rabbit project was in Cameroon in 1983 under the auspices of Heifer International and rabbit is now on the family menu in that Central African country.

An agriscientist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville in South Texas, a stone’s throw from one of the icons of the protein world, the legendary King Ranch cattle empire, Lukefahr recently spoke about his latest work at a meeting of the World Rabbit Science Association at the 10th World Rabbit Congress. It was held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, a country that is high on the rabbit production list. Both small farmers and large production facilities feed the Egyptian demand for rabbit meat which is less expensive there than chicken sold in community markets.

Lukefahr reported to the association on the success of the Haiti project, underwritten by the U.S.-funded Farmer to Farmer Program. Following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, many Haitians moved out of their devastated capital and back into the countryside, relying on small holdings to grow vegetables. Using a local crossbreed rabbit suited to the Haitian climate, the project has helped increase cuniculture. “Ten females and one male can produce around 200 offspring per year,” Lukefahr says. “That’s enough to provide high protein meat for the family and have some left over to sell at the local market.”

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Over 1,700 Haitian rabbit producers now maintain some 1,250 rabbit facilities, Lukefahr says, which are home to 32,650 breeding rabbits. The program has grown by 142% in the last two years and has helped increase family income by an average of $19.95 a month per family with some producers seeing as much as $200 a month in income from meat sales, a significant boost in a country where the average annual family income is $1,700.

Back at the Texas rabbit ranch, Lukefahr has been working on another symbiotic solution for rabbit production in the developing world — the harvesting of sweet potato leaves and vines to serve as rabbit food in warm climes where the tubers flourish. Over the last 10 years, Lukefahr also has visited Southeast Asia where there is a rising interest in rabbit production as Asian bird flu—incubating among commercial and family farming–has caused alarm in some communities. “China is the world’s biggest rabbit producer,” Lukefahr says, emerging as a major player in the last 20 years along with Indonesia and Vietnam.

In the U.S., rabbit meat has not been a feature on most family dining tables since World War II when the animals munched on Victory Garden scraps and later landed on the table while other meat products were diverted to the troops.  “But on the cooking channels and with chefs rabbit meat has taken off,” Lukefahr notes, adding that he believes the economy likely will prompt more and more families to consider raising rabbits.

In Oregon, Camas Davis, a food writer and founder of the Portland Meat Collective is seeing that trend unfold. The collective offers classes in rabbit slaughter and butchering techniques, focusing on utilizing the whole animal. About half the participants come in for economic reasons or because they want a sustainable protein — rabbits feed on grass, their manure is a great addition to the vegetable garden and their meat is a healthy protein. Plus, as Davis points out, unlike chickens, ducks or goats, they have escaped the bureaucracy. In Portland, backyard farmers are limited to two chickens and/or one goat, while rabbits “have slipped through the cracks.” The same goes for federal regulation, Lukefahr notes, and the Department of Agriculture does not list rabbits as livestock — hence the lack of firm numbers on rabbit production in the U.S. and the lack of red tape governing production, a status favored by some rabbit farmers.

The other half of the students at the collective are foodies, Davis says. “A lot are coming in to explore what they deem to be an exotic protein.” For her part, Davis, who trained in the culinary arts in France, domestic rabbit meat is rather bland and she adds flavor by cooking rabbit in duck fat. “It’s a mild meat and in line with how Americans eat their meat,” she says. To that end, rabbit meat would seem perfect for the American diet, low-fat and without gamy flavors, but the biggest barrier to its popularity, is the image of the furry bunny (a word Lukefahr shuns). Davis says the collective gets the most negative comments online about upcoming classes when rabbit is on the menu. The collective’s rabbit supplier was even targeted by animal activists who stole his rabbits last February. And so, if the rabbit doesn’t become the solution to the world’s protein needs, it can thank Disney, Beatrix Potter and the Easter Bunny.

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