Many have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Lockdown restrictions and shrinking businesses have meant that many have had to change careers or turn toward alternative forms of employment to make ends meet. On some high streets, new businesses replace the old, as those plucky enough to invest their severance packages into dreams brave the waves and wait for the calm after the storm. But few would think to turn to rat farming.
This is not so in Cambodia. In times of hardship, rat farming becomes a veritable industry. The small, tropical country had a workforce of just nine million before the pandemic, which shrunk by 500,000 when the coronavirus hit. With five percent of its workforce without permanent employment, and many more having had their means of earning a living damaged in other ways, those pushed out often returned to the rural villages from which they came. Far from the lights of Phnom Penh, life was very different. The surge in supply of farmworkers pushed the cost of labour down, depressing rice prices that were already very low.
Yet there was one resource which was both plentiful and in demand. In Cambodia, people seem to prefer fish, but across the border in Vietnam, rats are a delicacy. Some three and a half thousand tonnes of rats are bred domestically for consumption every year and sold along the Mekong Delta. From 2005 to 2014 prices surged 1100%, from less than twenty cents per kilo to more than $2.50 (when converted to the more stable dollar). There was a broad shift in public opinion towards consumption during the 2000s, triggered by the financial crisis. As rampant consumer price inflation, which hit 37% in Cambodia, began to put farmyard meat out of reach, those on both sides of the border turned to rodents to keep themselves going. But whereas rat-eating lost its allure for Khmer people, after 2008, its popularity in Vietnamese cities only grew. The trade volume became just a few million dollars in total. Yet for Cambodians stuck between jobs, it was the lifeline of a lifetime.
Field rats feast on a rich and nutritious diet of rice stalks and the roots of wild plants. Unlike common rats, they typically do not carry parasites or disease. Many people interviewed by the BBC at the height of the fervour some years ago said that it was unthinkable to eat normal rats. But field rats are like any other wild animal. The practice of catching them, which is performed using hundreds of simple wire traps, also prevents the destruction of crops, which is a common problem for ricegrowers in the region.
The trade was so lucrative for Cambodians, who could have expected to earn $3 a day in 2008, that some risked imprisonment and their lives smuggling rats into Vietnam. Guards were paid off to look the other way as they were taken across the border rivers that separate Takéo Province, in the south of Cambodia, into the lands of their richer neighbour. They eventually ended up hundreds of kilometres away in places like Ho Chi Minh city, where working-class Vietnamese were, and still are, served them fresh in restaurants.
One such restaurant is Chuột Đồng, which literally translates as field mouse or vole. In this kerbside eatery, these well-travelled creatures are butchered on the spot, marinated in garlic, chillies, lemongrass, and fish sauce. Depending on preference they are then either fried or lightly grilled, before being served to hungry office workers on their lunch break. As normal and delicious as tucking into a bowl of noodles, some eager customers eat there many times a week.
Knowing it is fresh from the countryside the sight of a chuột đồng on the grill makes for hunger that can barely contain itself, says Mr Chhoeun Kha. Yet the cautionary attitude which Vietnamese extend toward eating rats generally may be more pragmatic than they realised. A recent study published in PLoS One found that 61% of farmed rodents tested positive for coronavirus, and a slightly lower figure was discovered for field rats served in restaurants. Interestingly, the rate of positives increased the closer the rats got to the consumer: fractions of that amount were carrying coronavirus when tested in the fields where they were caught. It may be that rodents pick up the disease from smugglers and traders along the way, and carry it centripetally into the cities. As with bats, some epidemiologists have expressed fears that rats are a primary factor in driving local spread.
Yet whilst the employment effects of the pandemic have caused a glut in supply, health-conscious Vietnamese are beginning to shy away from street food. The double-bind caused by falling demand has caused prices to plummet. They now sit at half of their previously recorded highs, and wages for those in the business have fallen correspondingly. In light of this, WCS Vietnam, a conservation NGO, advocated for new regulations on the sale and trade of wild animals. Whilst rats, like many other small animals, were typically consumed as part of subsistence agriculture lifestyles, commercialisation and cross-border trade has only amplified their ability to spread disease. Similar calls were heard earlier in the year when it emerged that coronavirus may have infected humans due to the consumption of pangolins and bats. Before long, we may be seeing the end of Chuột Đồng.
Regardless of the outcome, the expansion and contraction of the rat industry have demonstrated how economic circumstances can shape cultural ones. The contractions caused by COVID-19 have cut both ways for farmers and led to new entrepreneurship in the face of starvation. At the same time, the culinary attitudes which freshened fears of disease may affect local eatery culture. Street food is a huge part of South-East Asian living, and the move towards corporatisation and Westernisation may be accelerated by the shunning of these kinds of meat. Cambodian farmers have prospered over the past thirty years, as the country developed out of a post-Khmer Rouge rice deficit to become a major exporter. Here too, the place of food in society has changed. No longer do crops go from hand to mouth: now, money must intervene. But as commoditisation and trade have caused rapid economic growth, and lifted many out of the poverty trap, they have also increased people’s reliance on financial markets. When prices collapse, agrarians must reorganise themselves, looking for new ways to produce and meet international demand. Rather than returning home to simple lives, the unemployed of Phnom Penh are seeking more.