This page highlights key harms and misunderstandings about giving live animals as gifts for hunger relief.
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Originally published in 2013. Updated in 2021.
Introduction & Summary
During the holiday gift-giving season, a popular choice for gift-donations are programs that send live farmed animals as "gifts" to help alleviate hunger and poverty in low-income countries.
Our purpose here is to make the criticisms of these campaigns public and to encourage alternatives that are more effective and more compassionate.
We examine the flaws in concept and practice with animal-gifting groups in general, which include organizations such as: Heifer International, OxFam, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Christian Aid, Adra International, and many more.
We explain how animal-gifting programs mislead donors and harm recipients.
Specifically, the sections below provide details about these concerns...
- jump to - Many recipients are lactose intolerant and harmed by dairy
- jump to - Animal gifting programs pave the way for factory farming
- jump to - More farmed animals does not equate to less hunger
- jump to - Animal gifting programs entrench the “protein gap” myth
- jump to - More farmed animals mean more mouths to feed
- jump to - Farmed animals do not just "live off the land"
- jump to - Farmed animals use a great deal of water
- jump to - Animal-gifting programs displace native foods
- jump to - Pastoralists are switching to climate-resilient crops
- jump to - Experts disapprove of animal gifting
- jump to - Animal gifting programs undermine urgent climate recommendations
- jump to - Animal-gifting organizations are misleading
- jump to - Animal-gifting organizations spend too much
- jump to - Animal-gifting organizations raise concerns with charity-raters
- jump to - There are better gift-donation programs to feed people in need
1. Many recipients are lactose intolerant and harmed by dairy...
Increased dairy production is frequently touted as one of the greatest successes of animal-gifting programs.
However, 75% of the world is lactose intolerant, and 90% of Asian and African populations (toward whom dairy programs are aggressively targeted) are lactose intolerant.
As such, both small- and large-scale dairy programs negatively affect the health, well-being, and productivity of people in lactose-intolerant populations.
Additionally, dairy production negatively impacts local communities with ripple effect consequences that ultimately disadvantage entire societies.
The result is widespread digestive ills such as stomach pain, gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and even vomiting. Consuming milk from other animals is also associated with allergies, asthma, and a host of autoimmune disorders.
Most mammals (including humans) become lactose intolerant after weaning. Milk is very specifically created for infants of one's own species, not adults of any species.
There is also no need for humans to consume the milk of other animals. Logically, this makes sense, but rarely is it fully considered.
While dairy is "a" source of calories and protein, the resources used to produce it may be better spent on alternatives that provide a higher quality and quantity of calories, protein and calcium.
2. Animal gifting programs pave the way for factory farming...
Animal-giving programs seem to focus on small-scale farming, but they have extremely large-scale implications that pave the way for factory farming and exponentially increase consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs throughout entire countries and beyond.
Heifer International is largely considered responsible for the kick-off of industrialized dairy in Japan after World War II. Heifer also boasts that their projects produced 3.6 million gallons of milk in one year in Uganda and developed a national dairy program in Tanzania.
These massive programs were developed despite the high prevalence of lactose intolerance in these regions (more than 90% of the population in some Asian and African countries) and despite the fact that native plant crops are capable of producing equal or greater amounts of protein, calcium and other nutrients.
Heifer International recently partnered with Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the United States, and the largest factory-farmed meat conglomerate in the U.S., to expand chicken farming in lower-income communities across the globe. Their partnership, called Hatching Hope, is currently working to increase poultry production in Kenya, India, and Mexico, with plans to expand to other regions. To create local demand for increased chicken production, “Cargill and Heifer will run local and national education campaigns on the health benefits of eggs and poultry.” *
In July of 2021, Animal Save India (ASI) visited the eastern state of Odisha to investigate the impacts of Hatching Hope. The project aims to create 60 million backyard chicken operations in India alone by 2030. According to ASI, “Many in the tribal communities are unhappy with the consequences of Hatching Hope, particularly due to recent bird flu outbreaks in the region, extra mouths to feed and youth denied the chance to go to college because they have to farm chickens.”
Critics point out that Big Meat corporations like Cargill only get involved in charitable development projects in order to grow the market for their products. Cargill benefits from the Hatching Hope partnership by supplying the hatchlings and feed, along with technical assistance to help families build larger chicken operations. But where does that feed come from? Cargill sources a major portion of its livestock feed, particularly soy and corn, from South America. After coming under fire when investigations revealed much of their monoculture feed crops were driving deforestation in the imperiled Amazon rainforest, Cargill agreed to stop procuring soy from newly deforested regions there. But they then switched to sourcing more of their soy— which is turned into chicken feed— from the Brazilian Cerrado, another rainforest being decimated by deforestation. They also resisted calls for a soya moratorium for the Cerrado and encouraged competitors to do the same. *
These are just a few of the many ways Heifer aggressively works to expand demand for animal products and to increase livestock farming. It’s also worth noting that all of the “small-scale farms” Heifer emphasizes it develops are supposed to adhere to Heifer’s “zero-grazing” guidelines. Zero-grazing means the animals are confined in sheds or pens, often shackled. The technical term for a factory farm is a CAFO, which stands for Confined Animal Feeding Operation. From an animal welfare perspective, these “small-scale farms” are nothing more than micro CAFOs or factory farms, which will only continue to grow.
3. More livestock does not equate to less hunger...
Pro-meat biases mean that sustainable plant crops that actually provide better nutrition and more income are often overlooked.
Teff, for example, is one of Ethiopia’s oldest grains. It is drought and heat tolerant while also being packed with protein and calcium.
In Food Choice and Sustainability (2013), Dr. Richard Oppenlander writes:
"In Ethiopia, over 40 percent of the population is considered hungry or starving, yet the country has 50 million cattle (one of the largest herds in the world), as well as almost 50 million sheep and goats, and 35 million chickens, unnecessarily consuming the food, land and water… [P]oorly managed cattle grazing has caused severe overgrazing, deforestation, and then subsequent erosion and eventual desertification. Much of their resource use must be focused on these cattle. Instead of using their food, water, topsoil, and massive amounts of land and energy to raise livestock, Ethiopia, for instance, could grow teff, an ancient and quite nutritious grain grown in that country for the past 20,000 to 30,000 years. Teff...is high in protein, with an excellent amino acid profile, is high in fiber and calcium, (1 cup of teff provides more calcium than a cup of milk), and is a rich source of boron, copper, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. Seventy percent of all Ethiopia's cattle are raised pastorally in the highlands of their country, where less than 100 pounds of meat and a few gallons of milk are produced per acre of land used. Researchers have found that teff can be grown in those same areas by the same farmers at a yield of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per acre, with more sustainable growing techniques employed and no water irrigation— teff has been shown to grow well in water-stressed areas and it is pest resistant."
4. Animal gifting programs entrench the “protein gap” myth...
Animal protein is frequently framed as crucial to improving malnutrition in poor countries, but this framing is steeped in Western cultural and industry biases that largely go uninterrogated. And while this serves the interests of Big Meat and Dairy, the emphasis on a need for more protein is itself unsupported. Philip Howard, of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, states:
“Although we’ve been told for decades that more protein is needed to feed a growing population, most people in the Western world eat much more protein than their bodies can use; there is no global protein shortage. Even most children in low-income countries are getting enough high-quality protein.
Protein deficiencies are rare, but are most prevalent in parts of the world that have insufficient access to food more generally. In other words, what we see is not a protein gap, but a food gap. But by framing the debate so narrowly, companies have helped focus attention on simplistic silver bullet solutions—which are not simple at all.”
Framing hunger and malnutrition as a matter of protein entrenches the focus on animal-based foods, as animal-sourced foods have themselves been erroneously positioned as either having more protein than, or superior protein to, plant-based foods.
Indeed, the push for increased livestock production, whether internal or external, has displaced highly nourishing indigenous crops around the world.
5. More animals mean more mouths to feed...
Many recipients of animal-gifting programs struggle to provide even the most basic care to the animals they receive.
Animals do not magically produce milk and meat or just "live off the land" by grazing (details below). Animals must be provided food and water in areas where these resources are already scarce.
Having another mouth to feed can significantly add to a family's burden, and the animals frequently suffer from neglect, malnutrition, dehydration, lack of veterinary care, and lack of shelter from temperature extremes.
6. Farmed animals do not just "live off the land"...
While tempting to believe, farmed animals do not just “live off the land” consuming only grass and scraps that don’t compete with human consumption.
In response to criticism that promoting animal agriculture in regions already plagued by desertification and drought is irresponsible, several animal-gifting organizations now have "zero-grazing" requirements.
Unfortunately, zero-grazing means that confined animals must actually have food and water brought to them. This food and water can be in direct competition with human consumption.
Zero-grazing is not only bad for the animals who are confined, it is also bad for the people (oftentimes bad for children) who must use their time, labor and resources to bring food and water to the animals.
7. Animals require a great deal of water...
Raising animals requires up to 10 times more water than growing crops for direct consumption.
Yet, organizations such as Heifer International promote inherently water-intensive animal farming, even in areas identified as water-scarce.
This means that already limited freshwater supplies are diverted to animals for their hydration, sanitation, and the cultivation of the forage used to feed them.
These uses of water are in direct competition with the drinking water needs of local communities, as well as with the supply of water available to grow foods for direct human consumption.
Additionally, in many arid communities, water is only available from a communal well or reservoir, in which case hydrating animals is a labor-intensive process for adults and children who must travel by foot and can only carry so much.
Initiatives such as micro-irrigation (or drip irrigation) projects for growing crops are far more sustainable and ecologically sound, and have helped provide an alternative livelihood to many pastoralists and subsistence farmers.
With micro-irrigation, crops can be grown year round, supplying families with sources of food as well as income from surplus harvest.
Families who have lost farmed animals to drought are now growing crops and experiencing food security, better nutrition, and access to healthcare and education as a result of a steady income.
8. Animal-gifting programs displace native foods...
One effect of Western food-aid programs that focus on increasing meat and dairy production and consumption is the erasure of more nutritionally appropriate and culturally relevant native foods.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than 2,000 native grains, legumes, roots, vegetables, cereals, fruits, and other food crops have been used to nourish people for thousands of years. But since the 1960s, with Western models for increasing food yields dominating the global landscape, agriculture has primarily focused on intensification of livestock production and the cultivation of staple food crops such as rice, wheat, and maize, often to the neglect of valuable native wild edibles.
Increasingly, though, agricultural researchers and nutrition experts are promoting the value of local crops that are often richer in nutrients than domesticated non-native crops, and are better able to endure droughts and pests. This makes native edibles an important tool to reduce climate vulnerability and dietary deficiencies.
“With a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to be 16 percent below former years as a result of changing Kenyan weather patterns... I don’t believe we can address the issues of nutrition, security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops,” says Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural researcher in Kenya who has devoted her career to studying and popularizing the potential of African indigenous vegetables.
Abukutsa-Onyango's focus is on native edible plants whose nutritional and healing benefits have been nearly erased from popular knowledge through decades of Western influence on African agricultural practices. Her outreach emphasizes that plants such as amaranth greens, spider plant, and African nightshade, commonly relegated to the status of "weeds," in fact contain substantial protein and iron and are rich in calcium, folate, and vitamins A, C, and E.
9. Pastoralists are switching to climate-resilient crops...
In response, the Samburu tribe, working with Sadhana Forest, has embarked on an initiative to plant 18 species of indigenous drought-resistant fruit trees and shrubs. These food-bearing trees are rich in nutrients and, in addition to increasing food security, improve soil quality and water absorption rates, making desertified earth better suited to growing plant food crops.
Elsewhere in Kenya, extreme heat and increased droughts have taken a similar toll. As a result, more than 100 livestock farmers in the region have begun growing chili peppers instead. Reporting for Reuters earlier this year, Caroline Wambui writes:
"In this arid stretch of Kajiado County, where worsening heat and drought have been tough on livestock farmers, Arnold Ole Kapurua is experimenting with a hot new crop: chilis.
Ole Kapurua, 29, a farmer and agronomist, now grows two acres of the fiery pods – and is training other farmers to do the same - as a way to protect their incomes in the face of harsher weather linked to climate change.
"'With time we realised that we weren't making good money as our livestock income stagnated... During drought we lost our herds to hunger and diseases, while during the rainy season we lost some to floods, making us live on a lean budget.'
While some farmers still rely entirely on livestock in the region, a growing number are now concentrating their energy on farming chili, which can be grown with limited amounts of water, said Samuel Ole Kangangi'r, another new chili farmer.
Over the last five years, more than 100 farmers in the region have begun growing chilis... Well-managed chili farms can produce an ongoing harvest over six months, with an acre of land producing up to two tonnes of peppers a week, Ole Kapurua said.
That level of harvest can bring as much as 80,000 Kenyan shillings ($800) a season, he said.
"That cannot be compared to livestock rearing as one cannot afford to be selling a cow every week, thus making chili farming a better option."
10. Experts disapprove of animal gifting...
The World Land Trust calls animal gifting programs “madness... environmentally unsound and economically disastrous...”
They conclude that “now that the grave consequences of introducing large numbers of goats and other domestic animals into fragile, arid environments is well documented, WLT considers it grossly irresponsible ... to continue with these schemes ... as a means of raising quick money for charities over the Christmas season.”
"Sean O'Neill of the Times of London explains that animal gifting organizations are wooing the ethical shopper with pictures of cute goats wearing Christmas hats and promises of helping the poor in developing countries."
But organizations such as the World Land Trust and Animal Aid deem that "it is 'madness' to send goats, cows and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification."
Former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection, Maneka Gandhi explains that when goats are allowed or forced by consequences to graze:
"... each goat eats all the grass and shrubbery on two hectares of land a year. A goat destroys the fertility of land and [the value of] any milk or dung it may give is very little compared to the havoc it wreaks ... within two years, the people who get goats have an even poorer lifestyle.
There are village quarrels about community grazing; children are taken out of school to graze the goats; water becomes even scarcer ... Two goats can reduce the amount of farmland available to local people and result in villages becoming deserted, while a cow will drink up to 90 liters of water every single day."
The OpEd news article continues:
"Some agricultural economists began pointing out flaws in the strategy during the 1970s, notably that many recipients of gift animals were unable to feed them to maturity, let alone able to feed and raise offspring."
"Environmentalists later added questions about the wisdom of introducing non-native livestock to often fragile habitats, where animals with larger or different appetites from the indigenous strains might overtax the vegetation or simply starve."
11. Animal gifting programs undermine urgent climate recommendations...
The default promotion of Western, animal-heavy dietary patterns by hunger charities undermines urgent climate mitigation recommendations.
Food security can not be addressed without consideration of the impacts of climate change on the foods and food production systems being promoted as aid or for development. The impacts of climate change on ruminant animal (cattle, sheep, buffalo and goat) farming, and vice versa, must especially be noted.
For example, a recent study estimates that between now and 2030, Africa could experience a potential increase of 40% in methane emissions from ruminant animals if the growth of beef and dairy consumption continues apace. Meanwhile, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, we see the effects of climate change spurring a growing trend of pastoralists— communities with a long tradition of nomadic/subsistence livestock herding— abandoning pastoralism and switching to cultivation of drought-tolerant or -resistant crops instead.
Dr. Pete Smith, a senior author of the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on land use and climate change notes, “Ruminant [animal products are] 10 to 100 times more damaging to the climate than plant-based food. As a planet, we need to transition away from a dependence on livestock, just as we need to to transition away from fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of hitting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Livestock numbers need to peak very soon and thereafter decline substantially.”
12. Animal gifting programs are misleading...
Animal gifting organizations spend exorbitant amounts of money on colorful, glossy catalogs using photos similar to this one depicting cute children hugging and kissing healthy, happy animals.
From these catalogs, donors choose which animal they would like to send as their gift-donation.
But in reality, donations may not go toward the purchase of the selected animal. Quoting from Heifer International’s website, “monies from any… animal fund can be used where needed most.”
Vegetarians and vegans beware: bee and tree gift-donations can support any animal program, fundraising, or overhead.
What about the children? Many who are supposed to benefit from animal gifts may be taken out of school to tend to animals. Some children have even had to sleep in the barn with animals to prevent theft. Ultimately, most of their animal "friends" will suffer painful deaths due to disease, deprivation, and/or slaughter.
As for the animals, they are far from happy. Many gifted animals suffer from confinement, neglect, malnutrition, and lack of protection from weather and temperature extremes.
Animals also endure horrific slaughter processes and long distance transport to and from the recipient's location.
According to Animal Nepal Founder, Lucia DeVries:
"I have been sending letters to Dutch agencies to stop this kind of program for yet another reason... the animals are generally slaughtered in an inhumane manner...
"...In Nepal, for instance, there is only one slaughterhouse, in the capital (Katmandu). This means that virtually all livestock are killed with the often not-too-sharp-knife of rural butchers, causing much suffering to the animal and possibly to the butcher. I've met quite a few people who lost fingers while trying to kill a goat."
*Note: slaughter photo not shown due to graphic nature.
13. Animal gifting organizations spend too much...
Concerns about the priorities and appropriate use of donations apply to all animal gifting programs, but Heifer International raises particular concerns because their budget exceeds $100 million a year, and luxury spending such as on their headquarters pictured here.
In 2019, Heifer International spent a shocking $23+ million dollars on fundraising.
Your donation helps pay for fancy buildings and expensive glossy catalogs that are shipped to tens of thousands people who don’t even request or want them?
As explained in the earlier section, any donation can be used “where needed most.” This includes Heifer International’s massive fundraising budget.
Former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection, Maneka Gandhi, stated:
“Nothing irritates me more than charities abroad that collect money and purport to give it to women or children or for animals in Asia or Africa. Very little reaches the country or the cause for which it is meant. Most of it goes toward their own ‘infrastructure,’ which means rent, staff, travel and ‘investigation’… This is cynical exploitation of animals and poor people.”
14. Animal gifting programs raise concerns with charity raters...
GiveWell charity rating organization deemed in their evaluation of Heifer International that the organization lacked sufficient transparency and priority programming to secure GiveWell recommendations or funding.
Quoted from the GiveWell website are concerns about animal gifting in general:
"When examining organizations implementing livestock-distribution programs, we feel it is appropriate to ask the following questions. We have not found a livestock-distribution charity that has published either evidence of impact... or clear answers to these questions.
- Are the livestock in good health? Will they meet recipients' expectations, or will they die or under-produce, potentially causing people to make bad plans and investments?
- Do the recipients of livestock gifts have the ability, in terms of knowledge and resources, to take care of the livestock well? (Similar problems as in the above bullet point could arise if they don't.)
- Do the recipients of livestock intend to take care of the livestock well? Or is there reason to be concerned that gifts of livestock could lead to cruelty to animals?
- Are gifts successfully targeting those in need within a community? Is there a risk of fostering jealousy and/or economic instability?
- Are there other consequences of introducing large numbers of livestock into a community?
- Might recipients benefit more from different valuable gifts, such as cash?"
15. There are better gift-donation programs to feed people in need...
Due to popular demand, we created a special Plants-4-Hunger gift-donation program to provide a compassionate and highly effective alternative to animal-based giving.
We send 100% of your donation to hand-picked groups with low overhead and proven successes in high-need areas. These hunger relief projects provide both immediate assistance and long-term community solutions that feed some of the world's most deprived children without harming animals.
We make it easy with one tax-letter, personalize gift-card, and our inspiring information booklet. Links are provided if you'd prefer to give directly to these groups.