Monday, December 17, 2018

What's Wrong with the Heifer Project?

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.

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.

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.

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 1990. 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. Fifty years ago, livestock consumed only 6% of that 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 America 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.  A Methodist minister who is a friend of mine, and a big supporter of Heifer, told me that the organization constantly faces problems convincing poor families in Mexico to feed the grain they produce to their own children, rather than to the livestock provided by Heifer, because the cattle are considered cash commodities.

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. American's over consumption of beef is damaging our health and ravaging the environment, a fact that 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 Program 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 unforeseen consequences. "The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries," says 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. Unfortunately, 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 purification. 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."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Is There A War On Christmas?

Every December, liberals like me rankle under the accusation that we are waging a “War on Christmas.”  During his presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump made it a major talking point, vowing to “make Christmas great again” and promising that "If I become president, we're going to be saying Merry Christmas at every store.”  He wasn’t the first.

Notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford raised the issue back in 1929 in a pamphlet he published titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, complaining that “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth.”  Ford insinuated that Jews were secretly running the world, apparently oblivious to the fact that Jesus himself was of the very tribe he so despised.

Fast forward thirty years to 1959, when the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society warned of an “assault on Christmas” by United Nations fanatics who wanted department stores to replace baby Jesus with symbols of international cooperation and global peace.  (Heaven forbid!)

Now, in this digital age, the alleged “War on Christmas” is a predictable part of the blogosphere every holiday, as conservatives stir fears that sinister conspirators (Muslims, Democrats, secular humanists or the bogeyman de jour) want to rob Christians of their right to worship or express their beliefs in public.  When the clerk at Home Depot says “Happy Holidays” or your neighbor wishes you “Season’s Greetings” or the U.S. Postal Service releases a new December stamp featuring a glowing candle rather than a cross, commentators on Fox News automatically assume they are plotting to establish a secular republic that will stamp out God, ban the Bible and likely feed Sunday School teachers to the lions. What rubbish!

The truth is I love Christmas. In my experience, it was great long before the Donald came along.

I grew up singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” in church on Christmas Eve, and in my opinion that is exactly where these songs and symbols belong: in church, not in a public school classroom and not in a creche erected on the town plaza.  Because much as I love Christmas, I also respect my neighbors who have other beliefs and other traditions than my own.  Whether Jewish or Muslim or non-religious, whether they celebrate Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa or Bodhi Day, commemorating the Buddha’s enlightenment, they are all Americans and welcome in this spiritually diverse land where there is no official or established church, but where all are guaranteed the freedom to follow their own conscience in matters of faith.  

So instead of waging any kind of war or quarrelling over friendly salutations, how about toning down the rhetoric working together for a little more peace on earth this December, with good will for all?  Wish me Merry Christmas or Feliz Navidad or Joyeux Nöel if you like; I won’t take offense.  And on December 25th, attend the church or visit the Chinese restaurant of your choice.  

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Jews Murdered in Pittsburgh Synagogue

Hate crimes against Jews are on the rise and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, attacks targeted at Jews accounted for half of all religiously inspired hate crimes in 2016. The eleven murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue by an anti-Semite in Pittsburgh this weekend come on the heels of a pipe bomb mailed to Holocaust survivor George Soros (along with other prominent Democrats) from a Florida man known for sharing his anti-Jewish conspiracy theories online. This past spring, a self-described white nationalist openly calling for a United States "free of Jews" drew nearly 90,000 votes in the run up to California's statewide Republican primary, while an assortment of neo-Confederates, white supremacists, and other hate groups marched openly in Charlottesville last year chanting "Jews Will Not Replace Us."

This is becoming a nation that most of us not longer recognize, where vile ideologies once relegated to the shadows are making their way to the forefront of political rallies. We must not allow these distortions of American values to go unchallenged or further enter the mainstream. As our parent's and grandparent's generation fought the Nazis in Europe, we must continue to fight bigotry, racism and calls for ethnic purity in our own time, on our own soil. We must form coalitions and stand in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers, with our GLBTQ sons and daughters, with blacks, with immigrants and every other minority that has become a scapegoat to channel the unfocused anger of an Empire in decline. For in this diverse land, whatever our faith or lack or faith, whatever our skin color, whatever our national heritage, we are all minorities and in danger therefore of becoming victims.  Tribalism must not triumph.  

In the famous words attributed to pastor Martin Neimoller, "In Germany, first they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak up." On this Reformation Sunday, we should remember and resemble this courageous Lutheran who was imprisoned at Dachau for his resistance to Hitler.

Speak up and act up. 

Rev. Gary Kowalski

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Thoughts on Parkland on Palm Sunday

Love is stronger than death.  Tragedy will not have the last word in human history.  That, for Christians, sums up the meaning of Holy Week.

With Palm Sunday at hand, young people made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem (a.k.a. Washington, D.C.) this weekend, the seat of a corrupt, monied and brutal state, calling for an end to violence and bearing a message of idealism and hope.  The crowds (a.k.a.the national media) adored them, throwing palms and welcoming them with shouts of Hosanna.  

Meanwhile, Herod and Pilate knew who controlled the legions, and knew how easily the multitudes of voters could be distracted by other spectacles.  “What is truth?” asked jesting PIlate.  To him, it was all fake news.  

The chronology is not quite right.  That old story ended in crucifixion, in one man’s blameless blood being spilled.  This revised version began with the slaughter of innocents as seventeen students in Florida were gunned down by the fusillade of an AR-15.  The narratives agree in this much, however: for no good reason, there was a massacre, and the authorities treated it as business as usual.  

Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state: a threat to existing structures of power and privilege.  Crucifixion, in the Roman Empire, was a sentence reserved solely for the crime of sedition or inciting insurrection against the hegemony.  

The students who led rallies across America yesterday to ban assault-style weapons are likewise receiving death threats.  How many more will have to die before their demands for non-violent change are made effective?  With school shootings almost weekly, no one knows.  The answer is probably too many.  

We can take heart, though, in knowing that resistance is not futile.  The good news  of Easter is that goodness has power.  Decency and kindness may suffer temporary setbacks, may even seem to perish entirely, but will resurrect in the peoples’ struggles for justice and dreams of peace.  In the words of eighteen year old Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez, “"if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”  

Didn’t same prophets who said the promised one would come riding on a colt also proclaim that the children would lead the way? 

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