Cows for Christmas

Have you gotten a flyer in the mail from some organization like Heifer International or Oxfam or Send a Cow? Or maybe you’ve seen Oprah begging you to spend your Christmas money on donations to Heifer International?

If not, you’ll soon get a brightly coloured catalogue from at least one of them. They urge you to donate money in someone’s name as a Christmas gift and that money goes to buying livestock for poverty-stricken people in Africa. For instance:

  • $500 buys a cow
  • $250 buys a water buffalo
  • $120 buys a goat, pig or sheep
  • $20 buys a flock of chicks
  • $5000 buys an “ark” of 15 pairs of animals

Heifer international has been around since the late 1940s. They were responsible for first sending cows to Japan (a largely vegetarian country) after World War II. Neither dairy nor beef had never been part of the Japanese diet before and the cows caused a lot of health issues for the Japanese people.

When I first heard about this livestock scheme, I was dumbfounded. Livestock farming isn’t even sustainable in wealthy, industrialized nations. How the hell is this going to work out in the poorest nations in the world?

The Heifer International catalogues show cute little farm animals being embraced by smiling African children. Little African children who haven’t seen rain in three years, have no drinking water,  who are malnourished, uneducated, unhealthy and whose parents have died of AIDS.

And we’re sending them cattle?

Livestock is the most inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. Cows, goats and chickens can only add to the problems of drought and desertification in this countries – no matter how much support and education these charities promise to provide along with the animals.

Sure, the poor, starving African kids will pounce on these animals and maybe in the short-term will get some milk, eggs or meat from them. But in the long-term it can only be devastating. For one thing, globalizing our preventable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes for which an animal-based diet is largely responsible, doesn’t seem all that charitable. Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Does that hungry African child really need gastro-intestinal cramping and diarrhea from cow milk to add to its problems?

These animals need food, large quantities of water, shelter and veterinary care? But we’re  sending these critters to help people who don’t have any food, water, shelter or medical care? Does this make sense to anyone?

One cow drinks about 90 liters (24 gallons) of water every day. A goat will eat all the grass and shrubbery on two hectares (5 acres) of land, per year. Cows and goats destroy the fertility of land and any value the milk may have is minimal compared to the destruction they wreak. Two goats can reduce the amount of farmland available to local people to such an extent that people have to abandon that village.

A few years ago, in one area of Africa 80% of the cattle died in a drought. The rest were washed away in the floods that followed. Many recipients of livestock animals are unable to feed an animal to maturity, let alone able to feed and raise offspring. And what about the issue of introducing non-native animals to fragile habitats? How does that impact the indigenous plants and animals?

There must be hundreds of better, more direct ways to help feed these people and improve their lives. What about sending and helping them plant trees that produce fruit and nuts? What about providing appropriate agricultural technology or supplying drought-resistant, sustainable crops? What about sending money for health care or education?

I think the idea of spending your Christmas money on something useful that will actually help save someone’s life instead of buying your mom giant fuzzy, bear-paw slippers or your sister a collection of novelty lemon zesters is a fabulous idea. I love, for instance,  that Meanie’s daughter asked to have a third-word foster child for her Christmas gift.

But sending farm animals to poverty-stricken countries?