DUCK SOUP: The Horse's Mouth

Charity can be an iffy business in the best of circumstances, identifying the needy as well as the need, and sorting out causes and effects. I'm reminded of a letter from a teacher in the Philippines expressing gratitude for computers provided to her school but suggesting that sanitary toilets were a more pressing problem. And so it goes.The Christmas shopping season offers charitable groups excellent leverage in the form of latent guilt about over-consumption, and this year we can expect more of the same. I recently learned of one such effort which neatly frames the eleemosynary conundrum.The Heifer Project International solicits funds to provide livestock to poor families around the globe. For a contribution of $20-$500 one can buy a flock of chicks or ducks, a sheep or a goat, a camel, llama or cow; a gift delivered with the stipulation that the recipient must give one female offspring to another needy villager. On the face of it this appears to be an ideal gift -- the sort that keeps on giving.But look again.Perhaps a good place to start would be sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s. The Peace Corps made the drilling of water wells a high priority in the effort to improve living conditions for arid land farmers. The need for dependable water sources was self-evident, wasn't it? The unforeseen result was a massive increase in cattle herds which were logically clustered near the wells, where they over-grazed surrounding land and contributed to subsequent famine. Oops.It is easy to see in retrospect that liquidity -- in this case literal -- would lead to investment in stocks -- in this case live-- in a culture where cattle constitute the primary form of wealth.Agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution and other books on sustainable farm practices, has carefully evaluated agricultural efficiency. The best return on labor and resources uses human muscle to raise vegetable crops. Adding livestock to the equation demands a higher input of energy than is gained in output. Large scale livestock husbandry only offers the illusion of benefit when there is free (or subsidized) land available. Thus we see rich ranchers in the United States who profit nicely thanks to federal welfare in the form of bargain basement grazing fees.In most poor regions of the world, land is precisely the problem. Either due to overcrowding or unjust distribution of wealth (and the two are usually found hand-in-hand), poverty means paucity of garden space. Providing more mouths to feed will not feed more people, it will feed less. This result is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of thermodynamics.This is the same reason the much heralded Green Revolution has been a decidedly mixed success. The high-yielding strains of corn and wheat that were seen as a panacea for world hunger require enormous injections of water and fertilizer. If the starving masses had water and fertilizer (and, of course, land) they would not be starving in the first place.The average American's diet, heavily based on meat and dairy consumption, requires twenty times the land area needed to feed a strict vegetarian. Beef consumption is skyrocketing in wealthy countries around the globe. The clearcutting of forests for grazing land is not merely incidental to this voracity, it is intrinsic. Increasing the world's livestock burden will not make anyone other than the livestock merchant better off. The best gift of life we could possibly offer to malnourished Third Worlders would be to end subsidy of Western beef production as well as federally funded export of McBurgerphilia. If meat prices reflected thermodynamic reality, the true resource costs would at least be apparent.In a world economy where the poorest people in the poorest countries starve while exporting food to the U.S., charity truly begins at home -- on our own plates.Jack of Beanstalk fame was remarkably prescient in his business dealing. Give a woman some beans and a place to grow them and she will feed a village. Give that woman a cow and she will feed the cow.

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