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Beef: An Ethical Issue in Ecology

Fr Donal Dorr

"We are the first generation forced to ask the question whether there will be future generations." This dramatic statement was made more than thirty years ago by a Jewish scholar who was one of the first to face the basic ethical issue raised by the damage which we humans are doing to the environment which sustains us. Following up on this issue, Fr. John T. Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union in the USA, points out that there is one issue which is even more urgent than overcoming the huge problems of racism, economic justice, and human rights. It is the preservation of the life-giving capacity of the air and the water that surround and sustain us.  If we fail to do that we will all be dead.


Up to about fifty years ago it was generally assumed that ethical questions only arise when we are dealing with issues between humans. Catholic moral theology put great emphasis on respecting “the common good.” But we took it for granted that this referred to “the common good” of humans. Our actions were perceived as having a neutral relationship with the rest of creation. So our ethics was almost entirely human-centred. We knew that we might do damage to particular areas of our surroundings; but it did not occur to people that our activities could seriously damage the natural world as a whole.


Furthermore, we thought mainly of the immediate and obvious effects of our actions. There was little or no consciousness of the more remote effects of human conduct or of possible long-term consequences of present-day activity. So our ethics took little or no account of such long-term consequences.


Nowadays we face a huge new challenge. We are slowly beginning to realize that a well-intentioned particular action may have a very serious long-term effect which we did not foresee. And it is coming home to us that an action which does no real damage when done by one or two people, can do catastrophic damage when it is done by millions or billions of people.



Let’s take a concrete example of this. At present, most of the people in India and China live on a diet which is largely vegetarian. No problem arises if a few of “the new rich” in these countries start to eat a lot of beef. But the present plan of the Irish agricultural sector, strongly supported by the Irish government, is to push the sale of Irish beef in these countries. The aim is to bring about a major increase in the production of Irish beef, by persuading large numbers of people in these Asian countries to eat our beef.


The problem with this plan is that cattle belch up a lot of methane gas when they are digesting their food—and this gas is twenty times more damaging to the environment than carbon. So it plays a big part in causing the changes in the climate of the world as a whole. Climate change causes drought in large parts of Africa; it means that the time of the rainy season becomes very uncertain; and it also increases the incidence of very serious storms and flooding. The Irish government’s policy of increasing the numbers of our cattle herd is in clear contradiction to the government’s commitment to reducing our output of damaging gases such as carbon and methane.


Furthermore, our government aims to have Irish companies export huge amounts of milk powder to Asian countries. This involves persuading mothers to switch from breast-feeding to use of baby-food composed of our milk-powder. This has two bad effects: it causes infants to be less healthy and it encourages production of more cows, and therefore more methane gas.


In the past there was little possibility of selling large amounts of Irish beef and milk-powder in Asia. But refrigeration and greatly-reduced travel times have now opened up this market to us. Technology and globalization have put into our hands far more power to damage the world than we had in the past.



All this brings out the fact that we face a challenge that no previous generation had to confront to the same degree as those of us living today. Technology has given the human community new powers over the natural world that no previous generation could ever imagine. So our ethics and moral theology can no longer be based simply on the more immediate and obvious effects of our actions. We must recognize that humanity now has the capacity to alter nature itself—and to destroy it. We cannot just see nature as a neutral background to our moral activity. We now have to take account of what responsible scientists tell us are the long-term cumulative effects of our actions. And we have to extend the notion of “the common good” to include not just humans but animals, plants, the soil, the air, and the waters of our planet. No wonder, then that Pope Francis said at the United Nations a few months ago that the environment has rights.



We have a responsibility to model ways of living out our Christian calling. So we are morally obliged to ask ourselves whether or to what extent we are living our lives and using our properties in ways that do not contribute to the huge environmental problems of our world. Should we perhaps see whether it would be possible for us to greatly reduce our consumption of meat? Could we support members of our family who would like to eat appetizing vegetarian meals? Could those of us who are farming explore whether it would be possible to change from mainstream dairy farming in which the belching cattle contribute to climate change? Why not explore the possibility of moving over to a more sustainable and organic style of farming which would show how much we care for the Earth and for the welfare of our grandchildren?


It may be said that whatever we do will go hardly any way towards solving this global problem. But Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ quotes Patriarch Bartholomew: ‘“inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”’ (LS 8).

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