I felt really humbled to be asked to present at the People’s Harvest Forum in San Francisco. I gave a talk over skype, which I’ve shared below. I was super inspired by the other speakers that I could hear and all the work they are doing towards food sovereignty and social justice for non humans. I would be really keen to organise a similar event in the UK. For more info about the forum check out: http://pplsharvest.org/
From Animal Liberation to Food Sovereignty: A Personal Story
I’d like to say a huge thank you for being invited, it is an honour to speak and I’m gutted I can’t be physically with you all right now! I’ve been asked to focus on my personal story and introduce some perspectives on food sovereignty/food justice from an animal liberation perspective.
In this talk I’ll introduce ‘where I’m at’ and what has led me to be organising for food sovereignty. Hopefully it will generate lots of questions for critical thinking and reflection.
So, I’m Nicole. I’m 27 and live over in Somerset in the South West of England. It’s a rural county with a large mix of large/industrial landowners, and more working class communities in the towns. People are increasingly pushed out of the countryside, unable to afford rents or participate in agriculture. The UK is an extremely class stratified society and this has had a huge influence on my life. I was brought up by a single mum on state benefits. We faced most things people face – poverty, domestic violence, poor mental health & lack of access to decent food or land. Before moving to Somerset at 10, I grew up on the outskirts of Bristol where one of the first Asda (walmart) stores was open. My Nan was a key caregiver in my life and as a result, I’d spend lots of time with her where she was from in the countryside. As a result, I had a lot of interactions with animal agriculture from a young age.
When I was 9 she took me to collect eggs from a local farm that was a battery farm. I remember seeing row upon row of hens in cages. The smell overwhelmed me and the emotional impact was intense. I went vegetarian and wrote to animal advocacy organisations asking what I could do to stop this horror. This began a big process of a politicization from a very young age. I started my first animal rights group at school when I was 10 (ironically I also started an amnesty international chapter, so prisoner support has been a huge current of my life for a long time too).
Around this time the SHAC Campaign started – Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty – it was a grassroots campaign to close down Europe’s largest animal testing company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, who kill 200,000 animals a year and mainly test fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural chemicals and so forth. At this time the animal liberation movement was on fire in the UK. Supplier after supplier to animal labs were being closed down through grassroots pressure and direct action. I wrote to SHAC aged 11 after getting their first newsletter, I did street stalls and made prank calls to companies. I went on their first national demonstration. It all kicked off, with riot cops, thousands of people tearing through the streets. People were wearing ALF t-shirts and talking about supporting prisoners. It was electric. It felt very working class, it felt powerful. I realised the feeling of power you can get working with others as part of a movement.
So that was my life for a long time. I worked three nights a week washing up in a pub while I was at school. The weekends I was hunt sabbing, or going to demos or organising with the Anarchist Youth Network. I eventually left home when I was 16 to do organising full time. My first partner got sent to prison when I was 16, and then a different partner when I was 18. Finally at 19, my door came through for the third time as I was raided by the police and arrested for ‘Conspiracy to Blackmail’.
32 homes had been raided, with the police whittling down to 12 of us that were charged. Three people were remanded to prison while the rest of us spent nearly two years on bail awaiting trial. The first six went through a 3 month trial and were found guilty. I later pleaded guilty and entered prison in March 2009. After 19 months on remand I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison (with two years taken off due to my plea bargain, otherwise I would have done 5.5 years).
I won’t go into details of the case or charge right now for brevity’s sake, but they were basically aiming to link the above-ground work of the SHAC campaign with the underground actions of the animal liberation front. And to these ends, they were fairly successful. They’d spent 2.5 million keeping a handful of us under surveillance for two years. They criminalised us with new laws, and were very effective in their use of repressive tactics to stop the movement in its tracks.
Prison changed my life in untold ways. I’d lived in 21 houses by the time I was 18, being inside actually took away a lot of the poverty related stress I’d experienced growing up, being shifted about and worrying constantly about money. At the time, prison was the longest place I’d lived anywhere. I felt quite grounded and able to focus on my personal development.
Obviously it was also hellish in lots of ways. Abuse/violence/sexual predation from officers was rife. The levels of self harm and suicide attempts are unimaginable, and ultimately your freedom and life is completely controlled. You are quite literally caged.
I was determined to make the most of my sentence. I got a job working in the gardens in the jail. While it was mostly frustrating maintenance work, I finally convinced them to let us grow vegetables. So we started a garden in the main courtyard, and also a large herb & veg garden in the mother and baby unit. I applied for a grant & completed a distance learning certificate in horticulture, which included a permaculture design certificate.
In those walls I learnt about how patterns of land use have shaped societies. I learnt about everything from soil science to seed sovereignty. I devoured over 250 books and started to think even more critically about the world around me. I had always been concerned about agriculture due to my veganism, and also from fighting HLS customers, who were predominantly large agr companies, however for the first time I could actually see a viable alternative to capitalist agriculture.
In the UK you generally do half of your prison sentence inside, and half on probation (like parole in the US). If anything happens you get recalled back to prison. Three days before my release I was given my license conditions – that I couldn’t speak to anyone concerned with animal welfare, or work for animal welfare in anyway. My movements were to be totally controlled, internet access restricted. I had to get permission even to have a relationship with someone. My solicitors were unable to challenge these legally and so began 21 months of my life where I could no longer speak to my closest friends in the world, lovers or comrades.
This was almost harder than prison. In an attempt to politically and socially isolate you, many of my comrades completely dropped out of the movement. My ex-girlfriend had rinsed me of the money I’d saved for my release and probation told me either I live with my mother or I go to a bail hostel (nearly worse than prison). My mum had re-married after I left home. I was nervous of living with her partners, who had a pretty bad track record of being dominating abusive men. Her now current partner, Ian, had built his own house and accumulated some capital. He bought a small house with 4 acres of land, called Brook End, where I would have to live on release.
You’ll be pleased to know it has all worked out. Ian is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. But here I am, having studied permaculture, suddenly with access to four acres of land. It was like a fairytale. So began a massive design process, that is of course ongoing. We observed the land for a year before preparing designs and making decisions. I built huge vegetable beds, where we now grow salad to sell, vegetables for courses and the family, fruit & more. I built a 30m2 medicinal herb garden. It’s a beautiful site with huge biodiversity and we manage it without animal manure or inputs from exploited animals.
I got further grants and completed a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design and also worked to finish a degree in ecosocial design with Gaia University, a radical alternative education institution.
In March 2011 a call out went out for a group called Reclaim the Fields. I picked it up and edited their description, gave it to my probation officer, got permission and three months after prison I’m organising a national gathering to bring together anti-capitalist food growers.
Reclaim the Fields is a constellation of people and collective projects willing to go back to the land and reassume the control over food production.We are determined to create alternatives to capitalism through cooperative, collective, autonomous, real needs oriented small scale production and initiatives, putting theory into practice and linking local practical action with global political struggles.
I became active in the food sovereignty movement, organising local events and national gatherings. I worked with a local food charity doing food poverty work, teaching food growing & cooking in working class communities. Finally in 2013 I helped to start Feed Avalon, a workers cooperative dedicated to working for food justice in Street, Glastonbury and surrounding villages. Basically everything I’d been doing but in a more intimate area, where relationships can be more resilient and long term.
So beyond my personal story, how does animal liberation connect to food sovereignty? Are these worldviews complementary or conflictual?
I gotta be honest, and that it’s been a hard journey that has really revealed to me the complexities of social change and how to navigate different worldviews. In fighting fracking and unconventional gas exploitation in my local area, I’ve had to work with dairy farmers, do public meetings with large landowners, very aware that people that are opposed to the developments probably hunt foxes at the weekend.
In organising for food sovereignty, I’ve had to give out leaflets that speak of the rights of people to farm animals or fish (such as in the nyeleni declaration that highlights the rights of pastoralists or small scale fisher folk). I’ve had to sit next to farmers on courses that maybe send animals to slaughter. It’s been like political growing pains, emotionally difficult beyond belief. But I really believe, unless animal liberationists become part of defining new food systems in all their aspects – social justice, freedom for animals, ecological defense & restoration – that we will be left out of the conversation. I do believe we face a common threat that is the capitalist food system.
Imagine our power if we work in solidarity more with each other. Like at this gathering now, if we challenge gentrification, resist global corporations like Monsanto or challenge the environmental racism of factory farms for a handful of brief examples. I think the time is over for single issue campaigns or movements. We gotta work together more in every single way. For me, being an anarchist means attempting to eradicate all forms of domination. In a recent book I’ve been reading the author writes how “We don’t want to build an anarchist world. We want to build a free world.”
I believe we need to be present in food sovereignty movements. We need to create beautiful inspiring models of plant based food production, while also being active comrades in struggles for self determining communities, whether that’s tearing down the prison industrial complex, resisting gentrification or fighting GM. While active in these movements we can have an influence with our worldview that animals are not ours to ‘farm’, enslave, control, cage, slaughter, or accumulate wealth from. We can keep returning to the commonly supported idea that multiple forms of oppression intersect and demand an analysis and practice that recognises the totality of different forms of domination. I know from just being consistently involved in the food sovereignty movement in the UK that my presence has ensured vegan food, or the presence of the Vegan Organic Network at events for example. We need to be actively part of all of these events and conversations, for the sake of the nonhumans we are fighting for.
Like Nassim mentioned, we have to challenge the social norms that we have to default back to animal agriculture.
Learning about permaculture has made me really feel like I know what I’m wanting to create not just resist. If you’re unconvinced I’d just say go visit a permaculture farm somewhere that doesn’t farm animals. See the soils full of life. See the amount of birds and wildlife that are free and self-determining. Taste the vegetables. This is how we could be feeding ourselves. Animal oppression isn’t necessary. We can invest our organiser energy in re-designing the world to eradicate all forms of oppression, including the commodification and exploitation of animals. This is what my heart beats for.
Thank you for listening