Why animal gift schemes cause both human and animal suffering

With the approach of Christmas comes the annual plea by aid charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid to support destitute communities in the poorest parts of the world with gifts of farmed animals. Wealthy Westerners find it hard to resist an appeal whose implicit message is this: People are starving to death; you are enormously wealthy and well-fed by comparison; demonstrate your humanity with a gift of a goat or a cow – it’ll cost you very little and it’s a novel and fun thing to do.

While the ‘logic’ of the message is superficially appealing, it collapses under very little scrutiny. Recent images from drought-stricken Niger in western Africa make the point. We see a vast landscape of skeletal-thin cattle – either dead or dying. They went hungry because their owners were too poor to feed them, and they went without water because there wasn’t enough for both people and animals.

Disease and inefficiency

Animal Aid first confronted the ‘Send A Cow’ phenomenon four years ago with a blizzard of press, radio and TV coverage triggered by an article I wrote for The Independent newspaper. The message remains the same. It is vastly more efficient to use available agricultural resources (land, labour, energy, water) to feed people directly rather than first passing nutrients through animals. It therefore follows that it is nonsensical to saddle already impoverished communities with a food production system that makes poor use of their available assets. The rich world can afford meat and dairy products only because of our surplus wealth and the financial cosseting of the livestock sector. Recent data show that the average British dairy farmer would make an annual loss of around £18,000 if not for a £32,000 public subsidy (leaving him/her with a £14,000 ‘surplus’).

Some donor agencies try to confront the inefficiencies and environmentally destructive impact of animal farming by setting up ‘zero-grazing’ regimes where goats, cows and other animals are permanently confined in sheds. But they still need water and food – and, in such cruel and deprived environments, can suffer high levels of disease, early infertility and premature death.

Which brings us to a central objection to the animal gift schemes that often gets lost in all the debate about production efficiencies and environmental impacts. Animals suffer deprivation, disease and neglect on farms run by full-bellied Westerners. The suffering they endure at the hands of people who haven’t the resources to properly feed them or lay on veterinary support is all too evident.

Drought victims aside, an example was published in the Mail on Sunday soon after our campaign was launched, when a journalist went to Lesotho in southern Africa to search out some glossy ‘successes’ boasted of in promotional literature published by the agency Send A Cow. One woman, far from being healed of her TB – as claimed – was actually bedridden. One of her children had died, there was no productive vegetable garden and the goats were without water or food.

Creating deserts

It is often argued by aid agencies that they put their goats or other animals on otherwise unproductive, low-grade land or where the climate is particularly harsh and arid. But this leads to further environmental degradation. Such land is often ideal for growing fruit-bearing bushes or trees. Plantings of this sort stabilise the ground and help capture water.

All the above is without reference to climate change. While the exact contribution of animal farming to the generation of global warming gases continues to be disputed, what is not in doubt is that ‘livestock’ farming’s share of the total is disproportionately high compared with plant-based agriculture. And while most of those emissions are generated in rich countries, it is the poor regions of the world that suffer most.

Rather than promoting animal farming as a solution to global poverty, Send a Cow, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Age UK and the rest should tell their supporters that their Big Mac habits are killing the world’s poorest people.

by Animal Aid Director Andrew Tyler, as published in Issue 160 Autumn 2010 of Outrage magazine

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