Monday, 13 March 2006

Cows for Africa

I am sure that all the worthy charities are very aware and carry out the appropriate research before spreading cows to the impoverished of Africa. But one of my corespondents pointed out that cows were perhaps not the best animal to help Africans. This was because most African populations have a relatively high intolerance to lactose. This is a gene that only occurs in about 5% of Scandinavian and northern Europeans, but is found in over 75-90% of Africans.

A paper published last June states that:
"On average, Sherman and Bloom found that 61 percent of people studied were lactose intolerant, with a range of 2 percent in Denmark and 100 percent in Zambia. They also found that lactose intolerance decreases with increasing latitude and increases with rising temperature, and especially with the difficulty in maintaining dairy herds safely and economically."

Superficially, it would seem that those organisations advocating cows for Africa, are simply using the Europeans' familiarity with the cow as a symbol of fecundity to drive forward a campaign to colonise the continent with an animal product that are not part of the normal diet. Is this yet another form of imperialism?

I thought that perhaps goats milk might be better, but apparently it has only 'marginally' less lactose ( ).

Unfortunately my search of the internet for some positive data on the benefits of milk failed to yield results -- all I could find was information on the high levels of intolerance. Which rather reinforces the environmental negativity of cows. Any facts and figures would be useful.

The results of my research, albeit rather superficial, shows that the only Africans that normally have a significant degree of tolerance to lactose, are the nomadic herders -- and these are the very groups that are overgrazing and losing animals in droughts. The sedentary populations have the highest intolerance rates. So the Hutu in Rwanda are relatively intolerant, whereas the Tutsi are more tolerant. I am sure all this is well-known to the aid agencies promoting gats and cattle, but I found that very few others were very aware, and it seems to me to be an important issue.


  1. Pardon my ignorance, but what do the nomadic cattle-herders use their cattle for? If milk is not an important product, your concern may not be real.

  2. Many of the nomadic herders do use milk, and some such as the Masai use the blood as well. But they are also a form of capital, i.e. wealth for bride price etc.

  3. Interestingly, I heard on the BBC news that Nestles were trying to get into the Chinese market (breakfast cereals). Apparently like the Africans the Chinese are lactose intolerant.

    Cows can play a role in developing third world economies; leather, meat, art (from horns) and fertiliser. Perhaps charities should look at buffalos?

    Move away from the concept of cows for milk as the primary motive to cows as meat and working animals on the farm (padi fields)?