We're about to enter the season of gut-busting excess, when the tills don't stop ringing and our appetites for giving and receiving get well and truly sated. Just in time, another gift idea has come along that is not about self-indulgence but doing good in the world; or so it would seem.
Paying for farm animals to be gifted to impoverished communities in the developing world, notably Africa, has moved from novelty to omnipresent fashion. The aid agencies Oxfam and Christian Aid made the early running. But this year about a dozen agencies are using your money to punt goats, chickens, sheep, camels, donkeys, pigs and cows to the world's starving. Prices vary : £70 will get you a cow from Help The Aged, whereas Send A Cow demands £750 per animal. Farm Friends wants £30 for a goat, while World Vision will settle for £91 for a whole herd.
The marketing strategy is resolutely upbeat. "Socks? A CD?," asks Farm Friend, "The search for a genuinely memorable present is over." The cow on Help the Aged's leaflet, meanwhile, is garbed in a Santa hat to distinguish the agency's effort from the rest of the herd.
The message might bring comfort to the target audience, but such schemes, sadly, are not a good thing. They serve only to increase not diminish poverty. Why? Because farming animals is an inefficient, expensive and environmentally destructive way of producing food. All farmed animals require proper nourishment, large quantities of water, shelter from extremes of weather and veterinary care. Such resources are in critically short supply in much of Africa. In fact, the wide variation in prices asked by the donor agencies testifies to this reality: arguments have broken out between Send A Cow on the one hand and Christian Aid and Oxfam on the other, as to the "quality" of the animal delivered and whether the many supplementary costs are covered in the asking price.
Sceptical readers might,at this point, accuse me of dressing up a concern about animal welfare as a concern for the world's poor. Let's be clear that there are major animal welfare issues involved in sending animals to, for instance, the Horn of Africa where, earlier this year, up to 80 per cent of cattle perished in a drought and many of the remainder were washed away in the floods that followed. But this is not about cows taking precedence over people.
The reality is that animal gift schemes are, in the words of the conservation charity World Land Trust (WLT), "environmentally unsound and economically disastrous". In a statement last week, WLT declared: "Now that the grave consequences of introducing large numbers of goats and other domestic animals into fragile, arid environments is well documented, WLT considers it grossly irresponsible ... to continue with the schemes ... as a means of raising quick money for charities over the Christmas season".
It is incontestable that desertification and further human impoverishment will follow the introduction of goats into already degraded areas. But if goats are environmentally disastrous, cows are extraordinarily burdensome economically. A newly lactating animal requires up to 90 litres of water a day, a lot of food and veterinary treatment to cover endemic problems such as scours, mastitis and lameness.
But where do the vets come from? EU dairy farmers receive $2 a day per cow to remain financially viable. For many years, British sheep farmers have received more than 40 per cent of their income from the taxpayer. If such feather-bedding is needed in the comparatively benign agricultural environment of the West, how can we expect the poorest people on earth to cope with their animal "gifts"? It is many times more efficient to use the available agricultural resources - land, labour, water - to feed people direct, rather than devoting those resources to fattening animals.
Some donor agencies try to confront the inherent inefficiencies of animal farming by setting up "zero-grazing" regimes. In other words, the animals get permanently banged up in sheds. But they still need water and food - and, in such deprived environments, suffer high levels of economically punishing disease, early infertility and premature death.
Ultimately, my objection is to the commercial forces that are seeking to persuade people of the poor world that their best nutritional interests are served by buying into modern, high-throughput farmed animal production processes. With that comes an addiction to high capital input systems, additional stresses on precious water supplies, environmental destruction, a loss of control over the means of production, bad health, a nightmare animal welfare scenario and more human poverty and malnourishment.
So this year, boycott the donate-an-animal schemes and instead support projects that help people, animals and the environment. Animal Aid, for example, will be seeking support for a scheme to plant 2,000 trees in Kenya's Rift Valley province. They will bear oranges, avocados, mango, pawpaw, kei apple and macadamia nuts. Such efforts won't erase the blight of poverty in Africa, but neither will they add to it.
The writer is director of Animal Aid