What Netflix's Okja Gets Right About Big Food
By Samantha Henry
Netflix's recent, original feature film Okja has triggered a bit of disruption amongst both those in the film industry and enthusiasts in the food movement.
The movie targets several issues concerning the current state of our food system, and could be a great watch for those curious about where our food system could soon be headed.
Okja follows the fictional Mirando Corporation, a chemical weapons company looking to rebrand itself with the presentation of an exciting new discovery: the miraculous "superpig." Mirando presents the animal as an ideal way to efficiently end world hunger.
Along with their announcement is a competition. They have bred 10 superpigs, which will be raised by 10 smallholder farmers around the world to see who can raise the best animal. With her grandfather, a young Korean girl named Mija raises the superpig Okja, only to find herself in a fight against Mirando to save her best friend.
Mija's and Okja's journeys from Korea to New York serve to reveal the dangerous intentions of Mirando Corporation, the truth behind the origins of the superpigs and a conceptual look into what truly goes on in industrial animal facilities. While Okja's characters are fictional, the underlying story that is told is not far from reality. (In fact, Mirando Corporation sounds an awful lot like many big agribusiness corporations we know.)
Here are several aspects of the film that hold true:
1. Mirando Corporation's lack of transparency
Mirando Corporation executives go to extreme measures to cover up their corrupt practices. They also mislead the public, claiming that a superpig was discovered in the wild and then bred naturally to produce only the 10 animals for the competition. In reality, we soon learn they genetically engineered the animals, created thousands, and confined them in a secret facility. Once the competition generated fanfare and interest, they could flood the market with superpig meat products.
This secrecy and corporate greed certainly takes place within the current industrial animal model, benefitting producers at the expense of animal health and consumers. The realities of the animals' conditions inside animal factory systems are kept hidden from the public. Animal factory owners have lobbied governments to pass Ag-Gag laws, which threaten anyone who reveals the cruel treatment of food animals with severe fines or jail time. These laws restrict human and animal rights and impede the recording and reporting that has played a critical role in bringing awareness to the mistreatment of animals in factory farms. A new poll conducted by Mercy for Animals demonstrates that Americans care about holding farms accountable for their conditions and practices. Perhaps, consumers would make different decisions about their meat consumption if they were aware of the practices that are common in animal factories.
2. The move toward genetically engineered food animals
In Okja, it is revealed that Mirando created the superpigs through genetic engineering. GE food animals are not science fiction. Recently, AquaBounty salmon became the first genetically engineered food animal approved for human consumption by the FDA. Mirando's executives insist that consumers do not care what they are eating as long as it is inexpensive, but public outrage towards GE salmon suggests otherwise. Before the salmon was approved, 300,000 concerned citizens signed a petition to Costco to reject the sale of GE salmon. In 2013, more than 1.8 million comments were submitted telling the FDA not to approve GE salmon.
Nevertheless, there is continued interest by industry to genetically modify other food animals. For example, there are efforts to engineer pigs to excrete less phosphorus in their waste, reducing the nutrient pollution associated with hog factories, rather than address the unsustainable levels of production that generate billions of gallons of manure every year. Such genetic alterations will continue to promote unsustainable confinement conditions that put food safety, human health, animal welfare and the environment in jeopardy.
3. The horrors of intensive industrial animal production
In her quest to save Okja, Mija witnesses the horrific conditions and torture the superpigs experience from creation to slaughter at the hand of Mirando. Animals in CAFOs live similarly inhumane lives, confined to overcrowded, filthy feedlots or pens and subject to severe abuse. Often, they have limited space to move around and cannot avoid their own waste or the carcasses of other animals. Studies have found that overcrowding can result in increased aggression, injuries and stress reactions in pregnant pigs. It also promotes the spread of virulent diseases, such as increased risk of respiratory disease in cows due to airborne dust particles, humidity and poor ventilation. Breeding animals for industrial conditions has severe health consequences, such as increased leg weakness and tail-biting in pigs selected for rapid growth.
While not featured specifically in the film, animal factory operators rely heavily on a variety of animal drugs to force animals to gain weight faster and keep diseases at bay in such disgusting conditions. Several of these drugs have not been sufficiently proven to be safe for use, and recent science suggests they may have serious impacts on human health, animal welfare, or the environment. CFS has achieved some recent victories, primarily in encouraging the phaseout of certain medically important antibiotics given the public health crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing infections in humans. Yet, there still remain larger regulatory gaps regarding antibiotics, and rampant use of non-antibiotic drugs that prop up unsanitary and unhealthy conditions in CAFOs.
What can you do?
For now, Okja is science fiction. But it's not an unreasonable stretch of the imagination. In the U.S. today, we overconsume animal proteins. This incentivizes the expansion of CAFO style production and the development of GE animals. Many people in the U.S. are recognizing the power of their dietary choices in shaping the future of our food system. In January 2016, the scientific advisory board that develops the Dietary Guidelines for Americans received backlash from industry on their decision to promote reduced consumption of animal-based foods in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, and encourage eating plant-based foods. The new guidelines generated an unprecedented 29,000 public comments, 75 percent of which "favored including the recommendations around less meat and supported the message of environmental health and sustainability benefits of reducing meat consumption."
To reduce the major consequences on human health, animal welfare and the environment associated with CAFOs and industrial animal production, we should all make more mindful choices and incorporate more plant-based foods. When meat does make it on the menu, look for organic, reliable certified humane, and 100 percent grassfed labels.