Okja is a Netflix original film that was released in June 2017 and directed by Bon Joon Ho. While some may characterize it as a dystopian sci-fi film, others recognize it as a commentary on our modern industrial food complex. Warning: spoiler alert.
The film begins in 2007 in New York City where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has recently taken over her father’s controversial agro-chemical company and turned it into a multi-national corporation that produces “natural, eco-friendly, and non-GMO” pork. She begins by presenting a few basic statistics to investors and reporters: the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 yet there are still millions of people going hungry around the world today. Lucy Mirando’s solution to global hunger and the growing population is to produce more food in the form of “super-pigs.”
Okja is the star super-pig of this story, but she does not much resemble the pigs we are used to. She is abnormally gargantuan and something of a mix between a dog, an elephant, and a rabbit. Her odd appearance seems to instill the sense that there is something fundamentally unnatural about her, however cute she may be. Ten years after the film’s opening scene in New York, the film brings us to the mountains of South Korea. A girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) has been raising Okja for those ten years as more of a pet and a friend than as the property of an agro-chemical company. After a brief glimpse into the day-to-day adventures of Okja and Mija, the viewer is reminded that Okja’s fate will not be as rosy as her upbringing. The arrival of “the face of the Mirando Corporation,” Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a wheezing, flamboyant, animal-loving, washed-up celebrity—signals the beginning of the end for Okja. She has been chosen by the Mirando Corporation as the Number One Super Pig (enormous, beautiful, and healthy) which means she must be transported back to New York City for the Super Pig Project’s inaugural celebration. The film now follows Mija, tricked into letting Johnny Wilcox take her beloved friend away, as she ventures to the United States to liberate Okja and bring her home.
While the Mirando Corporation claims that Okja and several other super-piglets were discovered on a farm in Chile, the truth is not so noble. In reality, Okja and other super-pigs like her are the result of genetic modification and breeding experiments conducted in a New Jersey lab. Sending the best-looking super-piglets to be raised by small farmers around the world turns out to be just a clever marketing scheme and cover-up. The Mirando Corporation knows that genetically modifying animals is dangerous and controversial, which is why they are being marketed as farm-raised, all-natural, GMO-free pigs.
While the film does not explicitly spell it out, it creates astoundingly familiar parallels to the reality of our current meat industry. Chickens, for example, have been bred to grow faster and larger than is biologically natural. Whereas a chicken being raised for meat forty years ago would be 4 pounds at 10 weeks old, today’s chickens reach a 5-pound market weight in half that time. It is an efficient and cost-effective method for bringing cheap, uniform food to consumers’ plates. It is arguably, however, unnatural, inhumane, and lacking in transparency.
Just as the super-pigs in Okja are genetically engineered to be abnormally large, so are today’s meat chickens (commonly called broilers). And just as the Mirando Corporation falsely markets its super-pigs as non-GMO, eco-friendly, and all-natural, the chicken industry now has labels for cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, and all-natural that rarely meet those standards as consumers expect. For example, cage-free hens are now able to spread their wings and move around, but studies have shown that they are not necessarily any healthier. Cage-free hens are more exposed to disease and higher ammonia levels and exhibit more aggressive behavior toward other hens. Such conditions are also more hazardous and arduous for workers who have shown greater incidence of respiratory problems. Free-range is also a misleading label. Chickens certified as free-range merely need access to the outdoors, the quality, time exposure, and size of which is not defined. A free-range chicken could therefore still spend its entire life in a warehouse, with perhaps the occasional chance to step outside onto a 10 by 10 slab of fenced-in concrete. In our current food industry, as in Okja, labels and marketing can be misleading and undermine consumer choice to the extent that what you think you are buying may be far from the truth, if not the inverse.
While Okja may seem like a strange sci-fi adventure movie, the underlying premise of animals bred for captivity, slaughter, and mass consumption is an emotional commentary on the food system we have created. But more than that, Okja is at its heart a film about humaneness. It finally asks us the impertinent questions that other films and books have until now failed to convincingly answer: Why are we treating animals this way? How have we become so blind to the irony of simultaneously loving and eating animals? Are we already living in a dystopian reality?
Nearing the film’s conclusion, one line stood out as the most disheartening of all. When the truth comes out about the Super Pig Project, and Lucy Mirando is exposed to the world, her advisors wonder whether customers will knowingly buy the meat their company has spent a decade producing. To quell all concerns, Lucy’s sister Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton) responds: “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”
And that is the saddest truth about the industrial food complex. If food is cheap, people will continue to eat it. And this pattern should not be viewed as a fault of the frugal consumer. Our system has been designed to provide the illusion of choice while in reality providing only one choice: the cheap choice. Any number of documentaries can be made or investigative books written on the inside truth of slaughterhouses and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). But the cost of producing that meat has yet to appear on the price tag of the finished product. And until it does—until the suffering, wastefulness, pollution, and myriad other negative externalities are included in the cost of buying it—people will continue eating it. That is what the super-pigs in Okja and the animals currently raised in CAFOs around the world amount to: a slab of meat in a plastic package for you and me to snack on, whether to satisfy a craving or distract us from boredom.
While producing super pigs to solve world hunger was the initial premise of the Mirando Corporation’s intention, it is not addressed at any other point in the film. In reality, meat is likely not feeding the hungriest people. If the goal of producing more, cheaper, faster-growing meat was to end world hunger, the model would fail even if the super pigs weren’t genetically modified, raised in confinement, and slaughtered on an assembly line. Meat is in truth a mere indulgence that is neither nutritionally necessary nor environmentally or economically sustainable. But it is cheap, so we will keep eating it despite these external costs. And the slaughter will continue because at the end of the day, as Nancy Mirando tells us in the film, meat is a commodity produced by an industry run by “hardworking business people who do deals. And these are the deals [they] do.”
Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agricultural development. She considers herself a “situational vegetarian” and claims to have a larger dessert stomach than the average human being. She is looking forward to knitting, reading, watching movies, baking, and snowshoeing over winter break.