Beyond Vegetarian: One Man’s Journey from Tofu to Tallow in Search of the Moral Meal [Interview]

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Photo of Daniel Zetah, taken by Kristine Leuze

I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn isuzu pickup, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.

I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.

I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.

Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?

Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.

Until I was in my early 20s I ate nothing but crap. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket.

When did that start to change?

Well, I met a girl that I ended up getting married to and she was vegetarian, and so I started eating a vegetarian diet. Which is still completely disconnected and completely clueless as to what your eating and where it’s from, it’s just you’re not eating meat. I ate tons of grain, lots of dairy and cheese, even eggs, but just no meat… And that’s where I was at for probably a good eight years, until my early 30s.

But then I met a guy in Tasmania that basically just said “Dude, what are you doing?” and kind of told me in a very blunt manner that my actions did not match my rhetoric in a lot of areas of my life, including my dietary choices. His words were as sensitive as a sledge hammer but I couldn’t refute what he was saying. It was tough… but, like…

A lot of people, when you tell them a truth that goes against their reality, they get pissed off, because their egos can’t handle it, and so they want to dismiss what the person said… but I couldn’t do that in this situation. I was just clueless and when this guy gave me a clue, I couldn’t return to being clueless.

So at that point, I started looking at labels of everything that I was eating. It’s like, ‘whoa okay, so now I’ve got to worry about this and this and this… ‘ and it was a rabbit hole.

The more I learned about what was actually destructive to the environment or my body, the more I had to look for on labels, and after a time I couldn’t actually shop at the supermarket anymore because there was nothing I could eat there in good conscience, and then I started shopping at the food co-ops, and then I ended up as a two-year freegan – freeganism.

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A market in Hobart, Tasmania

And I thought: ‘that’s my way out of guilt– my way of absolving my guilt from staying alive and eating food, is just eating food that’s getting thrown out.’ So I spent probably a good year and a half in Hobart, eating nothing but discarded food from restaurants and from market stall owners. I got to know all of them by name, and they would just save me whatever they had left over, and I actually had a rounds, so I never actually had to go to the dumpster, I just intercepted food destined for landfill.

What were you doing at the time?

I had quit my job working for the state government as an auditor/prosecutor for chemical spraying operations in Tasmania and had become a full-time environmental activist, because when I started going down this rabbit hole and learning more about peak oil and climate change I was like, ‘oh God!’ Here I was, just a couple years ago being completely clueless, and then this guy told me this stuff, and now I have the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, to tell everybody what I know, and I just thought at the time that it was literally a lack of awareness by people, and that if people like me would just get out and talk enough that it would all be okay, but I had no idea that it wasn’t a lack of information, it was just a lack of willingness to change. So that’s what I was doing, was just going around and speaking to school groups, speaking at different engagements… I was going to the state government of Tasmania and doing lobbying for energy policy reform, studying energy policy really really heavily, reading everything I could about climate change and human behavior, trying to figure out a way to engage with people that would allow them to absorb what I had to tell them. We all know how that works, but yeah, that’s what I did for a year and a half.

And where does the Sea Shepherd fit into this?

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The Sea Shepherd Anti-Whaling Ship

I was living on my boat, when the Sea Shepherd’s ship the Steve Irwin docked next to me. So I ended up going over there and volunteering. They invited me to come along, so I sold my boat, and ended up on that ship for about 9 or 10 months. So then I was a vegan all of the sudden, because the ship is a vegan ship. So I didn’t really have much choice. And I remember seeing the disconnect there—seeing people eating these soy based meat replacers, and veganase, and all this horrible packaged shit, that had all these ingredients that were grown in industrial agriculture, but they were eating them quite happily, knowing that there wasn’t any animal product in it. Their reasoning behind being vegan, was apparently to minimize animal suffering, but in my mind, they were actually causing more cumulative harm than they would have caused if they were eating meat.

Why?

Well… Don’t get me wrong, I like folks who eat vegan diets because at least they care enough to want to do less harm, but most of their food is heavily processed, most is from unknown origin, and a large portion of the calories vegans consume are soy based. And growing soybeans in a way that minimizes suffering is tough. Most, I would say 99.9% of soy beans grown, are grown in a monoculture, and they rely on outside inputs for fertilizer, and unless they are organic they rely on lots of toxic chemicals to be sprayed on for insecticides, fungicides, herbicides… more and more they’re GMO in the seed. So it’s all kinds of bad. If you’re eating stuff that contains palm oil grown in once-rainforests or anything with corn or soy beans, anything that’s grown in the absence of a functioning ecosystem by industrial farmers…to me, the misery is just more spread out.

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Soybean harvest

I mean, I grew up with cows, and I love cows more than most people I know, but why is their right to live more than the right for a whippoorwill to live or a snake to live or a mouse to live? Why is it that their rights trump the thousands of species that die in monocropped, industrial agricultural fields every year? Why does it trump all the species that have damn near gone extinct, or have gone extinct, since industrial agriculture has plowed up millions and millions and millions of acres of prairie in this country and destroyed their habit? Why do their rights not exist?

I mean, and this is the same thing: I love whales, that’s why I was on that anti-whaling ship, but why does the whale’s right to exist supersede that of those other beings? Just because they’re cute and they’re big and they’re high profile? So we only like big animals? It just didn’t really compute with me.

What happened when you got off the Sea Shepherd?

After I got off the Sea Shepherd I ended up moving to a small village up in the mountains of Tasmania called Lorena, to do a permaculture course—my first permaculture course—and ended up getting offered a job by an awesome guy that was building straw bale houses in that valley, so I stayed there for two years. That’s when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped me realize the complexity of our food choices.

The day I finished that book, I decided that I needed to take more personal responsibility for the calories that were keeping me alive, and that if I ever hit an animal with my car again, I would feel like I had to eat that animal. That very same same day, I hit a humongous wallaby, so I brought it home, and with help from my neighbor, went through the process of gutting, skinning, butchering, cooking and eating it. That was the first time I’d eaten meat in over 10 years.

There is no magic bullet. There is no one way to eat that is going to be devoid of guilt or devoid of suffering. There is no way to exist in this world without taking the life of other beings. And that complex truth was missing for me, and it’s still missing for a lot of people… They just go to this magical place called the supermarket, and these magical trucks come in the middle of the night, and magical ferries put all this stuff on eye level shelves, where you just go in there and give this magical money to somebody, and they give you all the things you need to survive. Well, that’s all really convenient, but it’s really disconnecting. And as long as you’re doing that, you can believe this myth that you can eat and survive without doing any harm to anybody else. That myth was shattered when I read that book.

And that event set you down the path towards raising livestock?

Well I guess that path led to learning more and more and more, and realizing, that while there is no hard rule for what a human being should eat, or what the perfect diet is, in terms of minimizing suffering of other beings, there is an ideal diet for each region and each situation, and where I chose to farm, which is south-central Minnesota, well that bioregion was a tall-grass prairie/ oak savanna biome, and that oak savanna biome evolved over hundreds of thousands of years with grazing animals as an integral part in it.

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Oak savanna

I can’t eat grass, I can’t break down cellulose, but I can eat meat. And the fact is that every time we plant some kind of annual crop, in a monocultural setting, we have to effectively destroy an intact ecosystem to do that. Annuals are only meant as a tool in nature to stabilize soil that has somehow become open to the elements– that’s their job. They come up right away, after a flood or a tree falls or whatever, and they stabilize that soil so it’s not going to wash or blow away, and then overtime the perennial plants will say “okay, we got this. Thanks for doing that, you did a good job, but we’re back now and we’re going to be an intact ecosystem of perennial plants and grazing animals.”

And so I realized that I wanted to gain as many of my calories from that perennial ecosystem as possible, and in this biome, I can do that with some vegetables that we grow in a diverse garden; wild edibles like wild greens, berries, nuts, fruit; and with meat!

I mean having one animal, that’s eaten nothing but grass all its life, and that grass is actually benefiting from it because that whole system evolved to have that animal in it, as part of it, putting its nutrients back into the system in the form of urine and feces, covering the soil by trampling and eating the plants, feeding the soil microorganisms, and it’s all just this beautiful cycle that annuals can’t match…

It came down to would I rather kill one animal that’s going to feed me literally hundreds of meals, or eat annual crops that I know are just destructive to countless beings?

Even when we’re unaware of all this, I think we all feel this burden, unconsciously, of just being, because we know deep down somewhere in our core, that what we’re doing and what agriculture is doing, is just bad. And so when I broke that tie, and that reliance from annual agriculture like that, I just felt more at peace. Even though I had to shoot animals directly in the head that I knew and loved and had to watch them die, I felt I was causing less death and suffering in this world than I had before.  As long as I was growing, preparing and preserving that food, and getting at least 90-95% of our calories from our land, I’d felt more peace in just being than I have in years. Because I felt that burden lift.

Even more at peace than when you were a freegan?

When you’re a freegan, you’re removing yourself from all responsibility. Which is good, because… it’s one step to say “no” to bad. That’s what vegans do. And that has some kind of an impact on how many resources flow towards that bad system, of keeping animals in confined barns standing in their own shit, but it’s not actually benefiting, or creating, what you want to see.

And what I want to see is systems that are going to mimic natural systems and be good for everything, not just the humans or the domesticated animals, but the wild species as well. I want to see food that is grown in those systems in harmony with an intact ecosystem. And if I stop eating CAFO meat, like I said, that’s better than bad, but good, on the other side, is actually supporting those few farmers that are growing food regeneratively, and doing agriculture in a completely different way.

I’ve had this argument with many folks for the past few years who say without large scale industrial agriculture, people will starve. “We have to feed the world!” is their mantra. They use this story to perpetrate all kinds of horrible stuff on the earth’s ecologies and beings. My argument is that if your idea for feeding a growing population is reliant on a degenerative system, one that produces less with every succeeding year… you are kidding yourself. It’s a divergent equation. Only regenerative agriculture has any hope at feeding a growing population into the future, since it is becomes more productive as it matures.

I’ve traveled enough and seen enough things grown around the world to know that even organic food, most of it, 99% of it, is grown in monocultures. Go out to California and see the organic almond orchards that go for miles and miles with not one other species in the mix. It’s just those trees, there’s no biodiversity at all, all of the native animals are gone, because all of their habitat is gone.

That’s not sustainable, that is not ethical, it’s just bad. But because technically they’re not spraying toxins…

I look at organics kinda like I look at vegetarianism. Organic food is better than bad, but it’s still not good. And so if your goal is to be better than bad, by all means, just buy organic food from people you’ve never met from the supermarket or co-op. Better than bad! But if you want to go a step further and actually try to create a system that’s going to feed people into perpetuity, and not destroy the ecosystem, you gotta do better than bad. You gotta do good.

So now you’re heading back to Tasmania, and you’ll be trying get your calories from an intact, local ecosystem?

I’ll be eating a lot of wallaby.


Post written by @Dustin_Michels. This interview was conducted August 1, 2015. Daniel and Stephanie are now kicking off their new life in Lorinna, Tasmania. You can learn more and connect with them online at newstoryfarm.com. And you can check out their new project at facebook.com/ResiliencySchool/.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Beyond Vegetarian: One Man’s Journey from Tofu to Tallow in Search of the Moral Meal [Interview] by Dustin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.