This page highlights key harms and misunderstandings about giving live animals as gifts for hunger relief.
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 OxFam, World Vision, Heifer International, Samaritan’s Purse, Christian Aid, Adra International, and many more.
We explain how animal-gifting programs sometimes 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 – More farmed animals does not equate to less hunger
- 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 indigenous foods
- jump to – Pastoralists are switching to climate-resilient crops
- jump to – Experts disapprove of animal gifting
- jump to – Animal-gifting programs are misleading
- jump to – Animal-gifting programs 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.
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 International 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.
2. 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.”
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Animal-gifting programs displace nutritional indigenous 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 indigenous foods.
One of our guest contributors explores the cultural, economic, and health implications of distributing milk and other dairy products as food-aid in communities where dairy is not traditionally consumed. As we have noted elsewhere, many animal-gifting organizations aggressively promote dairy in countries where much of the population is lactose intolerant. This despite the fact that native plant crops are capable of producing equal or greater amounts of protein, calcium, and other nutrients.
“Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that a primary function of food aid is often to fulfill the needs of donors–for example, milk producers–as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected, however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients–their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. Food aid is portrayed exclusively as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.”
“When thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets… Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium.”
“An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis in Mexico is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining. As milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.”
Similarly, across sub-Saharan Africa, 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 indigenous fruits and vegetables in areas most affected by climate change and hunger. Indigenous food plants are often richer in nutrients than domesticated non-native crops, and they 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.
7. Pastoralists are switching to climate-resilient crops…
Echoing Mary Abukutsa-Onyango’s predictions, many nomadic herders and livestock farmers have already begun transitioning away from animals to growing more climate-resilient crops and food trees. Reporting in Kenya, the International Press Service notes:
“Samburu County is one of the regions in Kenya most ravaged by recurrent drought, with most of the population living below the poverty line. Climate change has made cattle herding an increasingly unsustainable livelihood option for nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists, leaving many households in Samburu without access to a daily meal….”
Samburu community leader Joshua Leparashau says, “Animals will continue to die due to severe drought. The community still wants to hold on to the concept that having many livestock is a source of pride. This must change.” He and other community leaders note the need for decreased dependence on animals and increased cultivation of plants and food-bearing trees.
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.
8. 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.”
9. Animal gifting programs are misleading…
Animal gifting organizations spend exorbitant amounts of money on colorful, glossy catalogs depicting cute children hugging and kissing healthy, happy animals (like this HI photo).
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.
Furthermore, children 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, or slaughter.
And finally, the animals 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.”
10. 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 underproduce, 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?”
11. There are better gift-donation programs to feed people in need…
Due to popular demand, we created a special Plants-4-Hunger gift-giving program to provide a compassionate and highly effective alternative.
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, but you may also choose to give directly to these groups or choose from our grants list.