Providing food to people who need it is an ethical undertaking, right? Well, maybe it’s not that simple. Ethics is a complex and contested subject, concerned with ‘what people ought or ought not to do,’ according to The Dictionary of Human Geography. This blog looks at how and why projects increasing production and distribution of meat and dairy within developing communities might have ethical intentions, but unethical consequences that are ultimately harmful to food security, which here describes when ‘all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs’ (World Food Summit definition).

What’s wrong with investing in livestock?

My mum recently returned from rural Uganda with a strange combination of sunburn, safari pictures and a renewed enthusiasm for humanitarianism, inspired by a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) high yield milk scheme.

This is one of a number of similar USAID projects, implemented in places like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Afghanistan. In fact, the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative specifically provides guidance towards promoting livestock production and animal sourced food markets as part of their Global Food Security Strategy.

These projects intend to promote agricultural-led economic growth, resilience and nutrition in developing countries. However, while ethical values may be evident in these intentions, a growing livestock industry could pose serious threats to food security through health and environmental concerns.

Health Concerns

Livestock is notoriously difficult to keep hygienic: food-borne illnesses are particularly prevalent in warm, humid environments, especially those with limited access to refrigeration, and disease spread from livestock to humans is strongly associated with poverty, hunger and livestock keeping. Berhe Tekola, Director of the Animal Production and Health Division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), related the current situation of many developing countries to the rapid livestock sector growth in Asia and consequent 2003 avian influenza emergence.


A controversial health concern is the value of livestock products in combating malnutrition. The most effective food-based strategy against malnutrition is dietary diversification. Meanwhile, interventions orientated towards individual foodstuffs, such as livestock products, rather than plant ingredients display limited health benefits, especially considering the role of plant ingredients in cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention. While promoting livestock products could contribute to reducing undernutrition, plant-based products would be far more effective in solving not only protein deficiencies, but also micronutrient deficiencies, which are actually more common.

Environmental Concerns

USAID claims the ‘purpose of aid is to end need for its existence’. But the livestock industry is not sustainable: it is a key driver of environmental change, which in turn increases risks of livestock production. It is also the world’s largest user of land, and requires a lot of water: producing one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water. Freshwater resources are already scare, and groundwater relied upon by up to 3 billion people for drinking is declining relentlessly. It is estimated that by 2025, 64% of people (compared to about 38% currently) will live in water-stressed basins.


Explaining the Ethics

ASF trendsLivestock industry initiatives do offer a pathway out of poverty for some people in developing countries, but this is primarily due to rapidly increasing demand for meat and dairy products, illustrated in this graph (Source).

To discover why this demand surges with development, I investigated ethical fallacies and social norms.


Fallacies were first described by Aristotle (pictured on the right) in 350 BCE. One fallacy is ‘argumentum ad populum’. In this, popular opinion rather than a specified authority is accepted as evidence for a proposition. The premise may be mistaken, for instance that emulating the high meat and dairy consumption of Western nations is healthy and sustainable, but there may be scant acknowledgment of this mistake because it is not widely believed.

‘Ethical’ initiatives have, in this case, been derived from social norms of behaviour rather than reliable research. The unpleasant affective state that accompanies violating social norms could compel consumers to following them, but is no excuse for an international agency such as USAID, which must be aware of the data and be initiating programmes without objecting their impact on systems beyond their targets.

Social norms are flexible, so if the concept of ethics depends on social norms, then what is ‘ethical’ must be equally malleable. Until recently,  it would have been taken for granted that livestock industry initiatives constitute ‘ethical’ development. This suggests that, with changing social behaviour in Western nations, decreasing consumption of meat and increasing environmental awareness, current ethical justification for these initiatives will be more and more compromised.

Animal welfare is an example of this flexibility: currently, in situations of severe poverty, animal welfare does not weigh much on an ethical scale against human welfare. However, the variability of animals’ ethical status is implied by their variable cultural and economic significance: so this may be subject to change. In this case however, there isn’t the need to balance animal welfare concerns against human welfare as all indicators – human health, environmental damage, and thereby food security – present the livestock industry as harmful.

There is a darker explanation for why certain actors may want these initiatives labelled ‘ethical’. A cynic might suggest that dairy firms take advantage of demand for their products in developing countries for their future economic profit. Some of the USAID initiatives were funded by US dairy companies such as Land O’Lakes Inc. and Mountain Pastures Dairy Company, and dairy producers such as Danone are pushing investment into Africa, ‘searching for new avenues of growth‘.

Future directions

There are conflicting views on what constitutes ethical conduct in any given situation. If the livestock industry initiatives outlined here do intend to align with ethical values, they have misrepresented them. Ignorance is not an excuse for this. While some are producing jobs and profits for communities, the ethical value of these short-term solutions does not outweigh that of sustainable development.

Increasing development planners’ awareness of ethical positionality, and of why they promote certain food and agriculture practices, could encourage instead plant-based ventures with far superior improvements to food security.