“Most Importantly: They Need to Taste F%#@ing Good”

by Sam Jones

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.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

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.

Musings from the In-Between: My Coming to Terms with the GMO Industry

by Laura Barley

Monotony. Uniformity. Cataclysmic Tragedy, Subsequent Death. As a self-identified liberal attending an institution built on the premise of promoting social welfare through nutritional outcomes, this is how Laura Barley has historically described images of technologized agriculture. Her take on GMOs now? Read on. 

As we’re all too aware, the genetic modification of food is one of the most polarizing innovations in agriculture, placing tech-absolutists against agro-ecologist hippies and scantly leaving room for anyone else in between. Quite honestly, it’s a cultural scandal and a public relations nightmare. Never before have humans been able to penetrate so deeply into the fabric of our consumption and manipulate it for our own gain. Think about it: scientists have figured out how to take splices of nanoscopic DNA from one species, most commonly Bacillus thurgensis, then coat those splices onto gold particles, and use a gene gun to blast the gene-coated particles into plant cells that will then replicate and express the desired trait(s). Kind of crazy, right? Frankly, it feels weird that we’d ever have to go to such lengths just to grow food efficiently, but I suppose I’m learning how far a psyche of reductionism can take us.

As esoterically impressive as this technology may seem, it’s been integrated into seeds sown across millions of acres of farmland in the United States and 28 countries across the world. The extent of genetically-modified corn and soybean’s success is apparent in the magnitude of its planting, but I’ve always been inclined to wonder—just because something is massively popular, does that make it inherently successful or positive? Besides concerns for biological safety, which have largely been debunked, the proliferation of genetically-modified food has elicited a persistent sense of ecological and cultural doom in the general public much more than it’s elicited any sense of technological optimism. Where exactly does this aversion stem from?

As ‘liberals’, we are inclined to believe that a sense of the common good should prevail over the interests of a small handful of individuals. Arguably, this foundation informs many of our deep suspicions of the heavily consolidated seed and agro-chemical business—that they must not care about small farmers, that they must not care about the impoverished citizens of the world, because they’re driven so singularly towards massive profits.

Through my work with Ellen Messer, the Friedman school’s impressively well-informed professor of anthropology, I’ve looked into the careers of various scientists and biotech institutions who’ve set the business of genetically engineering food into motion. And honestly, their sh*t didn’t stink as bad as I’d hoped it would. Perhaps my lips are red from the Kool-Aid I’ve just drunk, but underneath the dark, tainted veil of their corporate monikers, I can see that these people are simply scientists. Take, for instance, Beatriz Xonocostle, researching the genes involved in drought tolerance to preserve maize cultivation in an increasingly dry Mexico, or Dennis Gonsalves, the developer of Rainbow Papaya that revived the Hawaiian papaya industry after years of serious blight – are these people who I should consider ‘enemies’? These are people attempting to experiment with and innovate the most sophisticated technology possible to make growing food easier. When I get down to it, I see (mostly) earnest people doing the best they can to solve continual global problems of food insecurity and hunger quite literally from the inside out. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand there are certainly much more vibrant ways of achieving food security that promote biodiversity and empower farmers at smaller scales. It all looks good and feels beautiful. I’ve simply begun to understand that there are tangible and highly nuanced reasons for the successes of agricultural biotechnology, and that these innovations aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Conveniently, this moderation leaves me at the crossroads of empathy and apathy. In fact, nearly all of my classes at Friedman so far have. I seem to be sitting smack-dab in the middle of the ‘it’s complicated’ intersection, watching rush-hour traffic zoom around me. Given the wealth of information and perspectives lent out to me, I’m no longer afforded the luxury of advocating holistic remedies from my isolated Californian, organic-farming-community bubble. Instead, I’m left to look critically at individual successes and failures to determine exactly which agricultural circumstances merit the use of genetic technology, or any technological or political intervention at all for that matter.

My argument is this: we’ve got to understand these people and corporations both for the results they produce and the intentions they carry. It doesn’t behoove us to assume ignorance on their part; it only stunts our own understanding of the axioms on which the global food system rests upon. A crucial part of our education is to properly consider the sets of choices we will undoubtedly face in the various roles we will all play in our careers, as farmers, policymakers, advocates, consumers. The middle of the road can be an uncomfortable place to be, but I’m ready to embrace it for the responsibilities it renders.

Laura Barley is a first-year Agricultural, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. Further dialogue and questions can be asked at laurabarley88@gmail.com.