As Christmas nears, many of you will be receiving a gift catalog from Heifer International, inviting you to help the poor by donating an animal to a family farmer in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. The photos in the catalog are warm and fuzzy and the message is appealing. But there's another side to the story.
Heifer Project International provides cows, sheep, and other livestock to rural families around the world with the aim of fighting hunger. They claim to have more than 300 projects in forty countries. With endorsements that cross the ideological spectrum, from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, Heifer is virtually a sacred cow--an organization that everyone seems to love. But there are problems with exporting animal agriculture to the Third World.
So What's Wrong With The Heifer Project? I think Heifer does some good work--they are committed to small scale, local agriculture as opposed to factory farming. But the emphasis on raising animals for food contributes to a general misunderstanding among North Americans about the causes of hunger, which are very much related to our consumption of a meat based diet.
Globalizing American farming methods is as big a mistake as cultivating a taste for lamb chops and barbecue among the world's poor. Neither is the answer to starvation. Did you realize that an acre of prime agricultural land can produce 40,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots, or 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, but only 250 pounds of beef? The grain that could feed twenty people suffices for just one cow. Peasants cannot afford this kind of waste and inefficiency.
Thus in country after country, food security has suffered as people switch from rice, beans, and corn to eggs, dairy and meat to satisfy their nutritional needs. Worldwatch Institute documents the trend in “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment." The authors point out that Taiwan increased its consumption of meat and eggs by 600% between 1950 and l990. While the island nation was a grain exporter at the beginning of this forty year span, it depended on massive imports of grain by the end of the period in order to feed its growing population of livestock. Food self-sufficiency is undermined when people increase their reliance on animal protein. The pattern has been repeated in the Middle East and Central America.
Mexico is one of the countries where Heifer works. Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed only 6% of the nation's grain. By 1990, the figure had climbed to 50%, as increased numbers of cattle required more imported feed. Most of the meat produced in Mexico and other Latin American nations is exported for dinner tables north of the border while the little that remains at home is usually priced out of reach of the poor.
Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Among blacks, the numbers are even higher. Writing in "Science in Africa," Dr. Harris Steinman points out that approximately 90-95% of Africans lack the enzyme lactase and are unable to metabolize milk sugar. The common symptoms of this genetic predisposition are nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Despite this, Heifer is spending millions on initiatives like the Small Scale Dairy Project in Zimbabwe, when the last thing that a hungry child in Africa needs is a milk cow.
Heifer seems wed to the belief that animal agriculture is the answer to the world problems, even when evidence indicates the contrary. Americans over consumption of beef is damaging our health and ravaging the environment-a fact the Heifer's public information officer readily admits. But then why is Heifer spending $123,558 to fund the "St Helena Beef Cattle Project" in Louisiana, whose stated purpose is to boost beef production among American farmers? And isn't it a mistake to encourage people in developing countries to emulate a diet that we know is unsustainable?
A United Nations Environment Programme survey counted 6,500 distinct breeds of domesticated mammal and birds in 170 countries across the planet, including cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and even ostriches. Unfortunately, much of this variety being lost because of programs like those funded by Heifer, which is introducing Irish goats into Kenya. In China, their "Pixian Dairy Cattle Importation and Improvement Project" is using imported cattle to provide "high quality semen and embryo transfer” for dairy development supposedly to increase the quality of the breeding stock. But the effort to "improve" the gene pool with foreign imports can have unforseen consequences. "The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries," say the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, "which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds." Loss of diversity puts animals (and the people who depend on those animals) at heightened risk.
So that's my beef with Heifer. The roots of world hunger are systemic and usually lie in an unfair distribution of land, which is itself related to an imbalance of economic and political power. Addressing these underlying causes of malnutrition is essential. Hunger is not caused primarily by lack of food. In fact, the world currently produces enough calories to feed every person on earth an adequate diet. Unfortuantely, too many of those calories are fed to cows and pigs rather than
getting to the people most desperately in need.
Heifer is now branching into praiseworthy efforts at reforestation and water purifcation. But the charity's insistence on putting animal agriculture at the center of their mission hampers their otherwise laudable goal of “ending hunger, caring for the earth.”
(The above is a reprint of an article I wrote several years ago, which has been widely distributed around the web. Researchers with updated information are invited to get in touch.)