Okja and Industrial Meat Production in a Post-COVID-19 World
While Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian film about a girl and her genetically modified super pig, Okja, came out in 2017, its message has never been more relevant.
The entire film is a critique of the food industrial complex, with the antagonist, Lucy Mirando, being the CEO of a giant agribusiness creating giant super pigs while claiming they were discovered in the wild.
The film portrays the disregard for animal welfare in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the prevalence of greenwashing in corporate agriculture and the conflicts that arise when eco-activists, such as the Animal Liberation Front shown in Okja, are driven by less-than-nobel motivations.
In short, the movie crams a lot into 120 minutes. However, inlight of F.H. King’s vegetarian week and our current COVID-19 context, I think the film’s discussion of hunger and food waste are especially relevant.
The film opens with a brace-faced Tilda Swinton, Lucy Mirando, explaining that the Mirando Corporation has bred 26 super pigs to compete in the Best Pig Competition. The audience later learns that these pigs were in fact genetically modified and that they are actually being mass-produced.
Lucy says that these super pigs will help solve the global hunger crisis by producing more meat with less resources.
As you learn throughout the film there are a lot of obvious faults to this plan, but an immediate one is the notion that world hunger will be solved by pork alone. While a tasty way to consume protein, pork, like other meat-based meals, are not the solution to food insecurity.
According to Wasted, a report published by the Natural Resources Defense in 2017, currently 42 million Americans are facing food insecurity. That number is predicted to rise by as much as 46% due to the economic impact of the current pandemic, according to Feeding America.
We seem to be living in two parallel worlds, while food banks across the country are seeing an increase in the demand for food, farmers are having to dump milk, destroy vegetables– even shoot pigs.
According to a recent New York Times article, In Minnesota alone, 90,000 pigs have been slaughtered, leaving farmers to dispose of their carcasses. Some farmers are doing their best to avoid this gruesome end, by creating less-appetizing food recipes in an effort to quell their pigs’ appetites, slowing their growth and saving space.
This sudden backlog in pigs is due to the shutdown of meatpacking plants across the country. The tightly-packed working conditions within these plants have led to several COVID-19 outbreaks.
In Wisconsin, Brown County now has the highest rate of cases in the state after a recent outbreak at a JBS plant. In Minnesota, JBS recently converted one of its plant into a euthanasia facility for excess pigs, according to the Star Tribune.
The farmers being hit hardest by this pig surplus are those with bigger operations who normally sell to companies like Tyson and Smithfield. Meanwhile grocery stores like Kroger and Costco have had to place caps on the amount of pork items per customer, according to NYT.
This pandemic has only highlighted the real issue affecting food security– access.
While consumers are being asked to put deli meat back on the shelf, farmers are being forced to compost piglet carcasses.
The super pigs in Okja can’t solve our hunger crisis because amount was never the issue. The Wasted report found that America wastes 40% of its food and that less than one-third of this wasted food would be enough to feed the country's entire food insecure population.
While Okja’s super pigs were as big as hippos to maximize production, real farmers are doing their best to suppress their animal’s growth to save space.
While a giant super pig may seem like a simple and tasty solution to hunger, it only increases waste. Meat production requires more water, land, fertilizer and energy than crops produced for direct consumption and 20% of the meat produced globally is wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
A pig slaughtered and thrown away is not only wasted food but wasted resources and economic inputs. NYT reported that farmers who have had to kill a large number of excess pigs have lost as much as $390,000 in a single day.
While Okja’s CGI pigs and advanced meat-extraction technologies make it a clear depiction of a dystopian future, it is important to remember the very real issues it touches on– now more than ever.