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Meaty Issues March 4, 2008

Posted by Sarah Todd in General.
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grazing-cow-1b1.jpgOur 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



1. Marcus - March 4, 2008


I think the first precept says it all, and thank you Kate Lawrence for making that point.

There are a thousand ways to give aid and to exercise compassion – so (given all the other options available) I would have thought that providing sentient beings for slaughter is hardly the best method for a Buddhist.

And using a cow for its milk is no less cruel than using it for its flesh. Milk cows are forced to be continually pregnant, have their young taken away from them so people can steral the milk and the cows cry over that loss. This trauma is repeated again and again throughout it’s life.

Compassion? Surely, if we want to help others we can do it without pushing such horrible cruelty?


2. Marcus - March 4, 2008

Ooops… I mean ‘steal’ and ‘its’.

3. John Mooter - April 8, 2008

Thich Nhat Hanh stated that eating meat is “eating the flesh of our children”. The meat based diet contributers to global pollution, human sickness, and animal brutality. Perhaps eventually this will be emphasized in our culture, but to stop eating meat and animal milk is very difficult for many, since it is culturally induced since birth. May all beings be happy and free from suffering.
John Mooter
Chairman, EarthSave Cincinnati
Cincinnati, OH

4. Patrick - May 12, 2008

I think the Chick-Fil-A cows say it best, “Eat more chicken.”

5. John Mooter - June 5, 2008

Patrick, why not eat your own children…is there humor in that?

Peace to all beings. John

6. Anonymous - July 29, 2009

It would be nice to find a Sangha that supports the vegan lifestyle, in accordance with the first Buddhist precept. Unfortunately, cultural traditions are hard to break.

7. Sarah - November 8, 2009

I know I’m coming late to the conversation, but it seems to me that the first precept of Buddhism is not “thou shalt not kill” but rather, “you should try to avoid killing.” Buddhism is not about absolutes, and many Buddhist writers (such as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) write that, while no one should commit acts of violence on a regular basis, people should not shun those who are forced to occasionally commit acts of violence. Buddhism is not about starving ones children to avoid killing a chicken.

People in the English-speaking world (especially the United States) have the benefit of enjoying a vegetarian diet high in variety and can engineer their diets to ensure that a good amount of vegetable-based protein is included. However, to ensure that a human being can exist on a vegetarian diet and remain in excellent health involves quite a bit of commitment and nutritional knowledge. Countries suffering from drought, floods, disruption, or a simple lack of complementary foodstuffs are unable to provide their people with a properly-balanced vegetarian diet. It is hardly wrong of those people to eat meat, if meat should become available. Therefore, it is ethnocentric to suggest that just because we privileged Westerners can achieve vibrant health on a purely vegetarian (or vegan) diet, anyone on earth should be able to do so. And they don’t – people all over the world eat meat unless their religion constrains them from doing so, and even then many Buddhists still eat meat. These people, however, eat very little meat. Traditional Chinese cooking uses meat as an accent, not as a main course. This is what proper meat consumption should look like.

If Heifer, Intl. does what it says it does – provides grass seed, veterinary care, training, etc. for animals that are meant to continue as a source of income or assistance for a family, then that is a good thing. Some people criticize the “forced pregnancy” aspect of dairy farming; however, many kinds of dairy animals go through a period of heat every year. If those animals were in the wild, and had access to adequate food, they would become pregnant every year anyway. Some other people have pointed to lactose intolerance in certain populations of the world – the most recent criticism I have seen involved Africans and their supposed lactose intolerance. Whole tribes of Africans living on the savannah, such as the Nuer, traditionally made their livelihoods off of cattle-herding, including milk consumption. This predates Heifer. Lactose intolerance does seem to develop in some groups of people who do not consume dairy products after they’re weaned, but consumption of milk products is not at all a modern development and not dependent upon geography. The mongols of central Asia, for example, drank milk and ate yogurt throughout their lifespans well over one thousand years ago.

If the animals are humanely and compassionately treated, if the environment is cared for and not allowed to degrade, then I see no harm in helping the destitute of the world by supplying them with animals. All beings die. Life is transient. It is just as good, or bad, for an animal to die and be consumed to give life to other animals as it is for the animal to consume and rot into the ground while other animals starve for lack of food. Wolves are not evil, and humans are not special. It can be no more harmful than these tree-planting schemes which purport to provide erosion control and plant-based foods to people but which really create monocultures, destroy native plant life, chase off the natural mix of forest-dwelling creatures, and tend to go to scrub if they are not carefully tended by people. Planting an acre (or ten thousand) of trees is not reforesting and it, too, is not particularly good for the environment. Observe, if you will, the bee crash currently happening.

8. Anonymous - December 20, 2009

The first precept is ‘I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.’ By sending these animals, we take part in killing. We internationalize our own unsustainable lifestyle: instead of working on more fundamental and sustainable efforts, we send animals as commodities. Science and technology are such that we can help far more efficiently and ethically.
(Finally, I have seen in the teachings and charitable work of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche a constant awareness of what is the most wise method and how to support or to pursue that. That manner of inquiry and action is not related to issues of shunning of course, as we should not shun people doing their best to survive …but for us who have the resources and the opportunity to study and apply what we study, we can find many better methods and philosophies than that pursued by the well-meaning Heifer Intl.)

9. John Mooter - March 22, 2012

Heifer International trys to rationalize meat production, but fails to show any reason that we need to eat animals or their secretions.Meat and dairy products are addicting, especially milk, which is for a baby cow, not an adult human. To steal teh milk from a baby cow, separate it from its mother, violates teh precepts of not to steal or kill. It is unnecessary and inhumane.
It is no more difficult to balance a vegan diet than to balance a diet with meat and dairy products.I believe it is easier to balace a vegan diet, You eat whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. It is not rocket science to “balance ” a plant based diet. Meat and dairy “foods” lack fiber, are full of unwanted cholesteral and fat, and are not healthy for the human body, as is proven by so many recent studies showing a plant based diet improves health and prevents many modern diseases.In this country, a vegan diet can be less expensive, and the medical bills will be reduced if it is acentered on whole foods. May all beings be happy and free from suffering.

10. John Mooter - March 22, 2012

The difference between humans and other sentient beings is that we have a choice when it comes to food consumption. We can choose a plant based diet. Making this choice is empowering, not restrictive. It gives us the feeling of freedom, of not being part of the enslavement of other beings. We are designed to eat plants. Perhaps there has never been an all vegan society, but there has also not been a society without war. Maybe it is time to give peace a chance, to evolve.

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