Our Winter ’07 article, Gifts That Keep on Giving, has attracted some attention for its praise of Heifer International, a charitable foundation dedicated to providing international communities in need with livestock. Some livestock are used to help with farming and transportation, while others provide families with food and an opportunity to earn money through their milk, eggs, cheese, wool, and — yes — meat.

In our Spring ’08 issue, we published a letter from reader Kate Lawrence, who wrote,

For Buddhists, a donation through Heifer violates the First Precept about not killing. These animals and their offspring will be killed, and killed specifically at the request of the donor. Do we really want to celebrate the holidays by sending animals to slaughter? Even if the donated animal is kept for milk or egg production, there is still killing involved: the female animals’ unwanted male siblings have most likely been slaughtered sooner rather than later. Buddha’s teaching considers animals to be sentient beings, yet to Heifer, Oxfam, and similar organizations they are simply commodities to be used. For example, rabbits are described in a Heifer brochure as “a great source of protein” instead of being recognized as intelligent beings worthy of respect. (I live with three house rabbits, so I’ve been able to observe firsthand what complex creatures they are.)
Secondly, farming animals is an inefficient, expensive, and environmentally destructive way of producing food. Non-native livestock are being introduced to fragile habitats, where grazing destroys the fertility of the land, and reduces the amount of farmland available to local people. Maneka Gandhi, former Indian minister for social welfare and animal protection, comments, ‘It is madness to send goats, cows, and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification . . . Within two years the people who get goats have an even poorer lifestyle.’ In addition, many recipients of gift animals are unable to feed them to maturity, much less feed and raise offspring.”

We also gave Heifer International an opportunity to respond. A shortened version was published in our magazine; the response read, in full:

On behalf of Heifer International, I want to agree with almost everything the writer says – it would be crazy to use livestock where they will hurt the environment, be killed needlessly or inhumanely, raised in poor health, etc., but that is not what Heifer does. Heifer provides community groups with livestock if and only if they request it after training in community values and studying the available resources. If they submit a strategic plan showing how they will care for the animals, how having livestock will substantially increase their livelihoods, then and only then does Heifer provide support. And then we ask that they source animals locally and “pass on the gift” of offspring AND TRAINING to others. The farmers use manure as organic fertilizer to increase crop production, plant trees to preserve the environment, raise honeybees and worms for composting, and on and on. We have no stake in encouraging meat-eating. The idea is to double or triple farms incomes for years to come. It’s a great development tool and a really smart, practical way for people living in remote areas to use local resources to have more money for health care, education, food and clothing and other basic needs. And that bring hope for a better life, not just materially but in other ways as well.

Clearly, this is an issue that people are passionate about, and we’ve still got letters coming in. Tricycle wanted to give readers an opportunity to continue the discussion of Buddhist food ethics and charitable giving here on the blog. Below are two additional letters we’ve received recently: one defense of Heifer, one criticism. I’ll keep posting letters as we receive them, and please feel free to direct your comments and opinions to the ol’ comments section as well. We’re looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say!

I am a subscriber to Tricycle AND a supporter of Heifer International. I am writing in response to the letter referencing this charity in the spring issue. I firmly believe in Heifer’s mission of ending hunger and caring for the earth. Their program offers individuals the opportunity to become self-sufficient resulting in better nutrition, schooling opportunities for family members, and improved housing. I have seen first hand the pride in a Heifer participant’s eyes as they described how their lives had improved. Heifer offers training in sustainability to ensure that animals and the environment are properly cared for. In my travel with Heifer I did not experience the conditions described by Ms. Lawrence in her editorial. I hope that Tricycle readers might show compassion and understanding towards those who desire to provide adequately for their families ensuring their health and welfare. From that perspective, Heifer International is worthy of your charitable dollar.

Phyllis Duncan
Virginia Beach, VA

I was pleased to read Kate Lawrence’s letter on Heifer International. The response to her letter from Heifer International did not address her concerns totally. The bottom line is that the organization uses animals for food, and this process involves killing them. whether used for meat or dairy.
Whether or not meat is organic or not, it is not as ecological as plant protein. The superiority of plant protein was demonstrated clearly in The China Study by Dr. Colin Powel. My question is this; is it ever really necessary for humans to commit violence against other sentient beings to be healthy? I believe that in this country, the answer is no. One can thrive well on and all plant diet, and have many health benefits. A vegan diet is good for us, the planet and the animals. This sounds like a win-win situation to me.
Organizations that view animals as mere commodities are not in line with Buddhist thought. There are many charities that do not kill animals and are benefiting all of society. That is where I put my dollars.

John Mooter