Fighting human hunger with a vegan ethic
Mark Gold outlines an inspiring Ethiopian initiative to feed hungry children on a vegan diet
For many involved in the animal movement, it is not a case of caring about non-humans more than people. Alleviating animal suffering and exploitation goes hand in hand with a wish to protect the weak and vulnerable amongst our own species. Nowhere do these concerns combine more seamlessly than in the desire to save animals from slaughter and humans from needless hunger, since far more people can be fed on a plant-based diet than on animal products. Conversion rates vary from species to species and crop to crop, but as a rough estimate, you can produce 3-10 times more food energy and protein by feeding crops directly to humans. Animals simply convert plant protein inefficiently into meat and dairy. And crucially, animal products also take far more water than vegetarian foods.
Yet the worldwide production of animal products continues to increase – mostly in the developing world – and has even led Western aid charities to promote ‘Send a Cow’ (/goat/pig/chicken) schemes for impoverished human communities.
Send A Cow is not the answer
Several years ago, Animal Aid launched a protest against the irrational ‘send an animal to Africa’ trend, pointing out the error of trying to persuade people in poorer nations that their best nutritional interests are served by buying into modern, high-throughput farmed animal production processes. With this, as we pointed out, comes an addiction to high capital input systems, additional stresses on precious water supplies, environmental destruction, a loss of control over the means of production, bad health, a nightmare animal welfare scenario and more human poverty and malnourishment. We asked ‘who pays the vet bills?’ when animals get sick (as they often will). Where are the vets to come from? How can such an arrangement serve local people in the mid to long term when – as another animal donor charity has reported – some African cow-owning families are spending a full three quarters of their cow-related income on feed for the animal?
Our intervention led to an avalanche of media interest, fierce debate and an unexpected level of support, even from within the aid and development community. Yet the madness continues.
Aid charities with a vegan ethic
These ‘Send A Cow’ policies are a real problem for vegetarians and vegans who would genuinely like to support schemes to help impoverished people. Even if we admire the work that some participating charities might do elsewhere in providing emergency food relief (revealingly, such aid is almost exclusively plant-based), digging wells, providing safe water, trees, seeds and so on, it jars when the same organisations also back policies that are at odds with our personal principles. So are there alternatives?
Fortunately, there are. A handful of smaller charities around the world do include a commitment to veganism in their core values. In the UK, there is Vegfam and HIPPO (Help International Plant Protein Organisation). In the USA, A Well Fed World and Food for Life are involved in essential famine relief work. But one of the most effective is the US/Ethiopian charity, the International Fund for Africa (IFA). Founded by vegans, its mission statement asserts that the future has to be plant-based, both for animal protection and to feed the world more rationally. It is a relatively small set-up, currently employing 11 people, but as well as providing emergency medical treatment and developing maternal and child health care in Ethiopia, it has set up veterinary medical support for homeless dogs and helped to establish the country’s first Vegan Society. IFA has also introduced its Sustainable School Health & Nutrition Programme, offering a nutritious vegan meal to the poorest children – predominantly orphans. The scheme has now extended to five schools, feeding 500 children, with more planned. For the children, it provides what is often the only proper daily meal they receive, and the result is improved health and school performance – and therefore greater opportunity for a fulfilling adult life.
Helping from the UK
Last year, a small group of us in the UK pledged to support the IFA initiative by funding one of the new schools – Hana Primary School near Addis Ababa – to feed 100 of its most underprivileged pupils for three years. With crucial backing from the school itself, a kitchen was built, parents taken on as cooks, menus meticulously planned, and ingredients supplied – mostly based on vegetables, lentils, rice, pasta, spices and bread. The idea is eventually also to establish a bakery and mushroom growing facilities that will sell to the local community and enable the school feeding programme to become self-financing.
The costs for the first year have already been met and the children are now receiving their daily vegan meal. In February, we asked an independent observer to assess the project, so that we could be sure that donations were being put to the best possible use. Kalkidan Legesse, who runs a Fairtrade clothes shop in Exeter (Sancho’s Dress), paid a visit to Hana Primary School on our behalf and was glowing in her praise:
‘I was really touched by the project, the thoughtfulness of it and how well the children are looked after.’
‘The meal seemed well balanced and was also delicious! … The children seemed content and only had positive things to say about the project.’
‘The teachers said they had seen notable improvements in the exam results of the children who had been in the programme.’
‘I have worked with various people from different organisations here, and I personally found Tsedaye (the IFA project co-ordinator) and her team to be very committed and trustworthy.’
‘I do believe it will make a difference to their lives.’
The great thing about the IFA initiative is that it is small-scale, so everything can be easily assessed and overheads kept to a minimum. Its offers a practical illustration of how feeding people on a plant-based diet can benefit both the poorest people and the other animals who live out their lives on our small planet. And while the alleviation of hunger for 500 children is a small contribution, it sets an inspiring example for others to follow.
Our plan now is to raise money to sustain the project for year two. The cost of the food alone is £4,700 and a fundraising page has now been set up. If you would like to donate, you can do so at: https://chuffed.org/project/feeding-hungry-children-on-a-vegan-diet.