Last night I watched Bong Joon-Ho’s recently-released Netflix film Okja. An extremely complex movie, Okja is thought-provoking, weird, disturbing, and delightful. This moving story of the connection between a girl from rural Korea and her “super pig” companion, Okja, throws the issues of the environment, animal welfare, urban-rural divide, and powerful technology under the mainstream spotlight. What I most enjoyed about the movie is that it does not present a single answer to these questions. Instead, it leaves room for discussion and prompts careful consideration of our current food system.
There are three main players in this film: the Natural (Mija and her pig Okja bonding in Korean wilderness), the Technological (the well-intentioned but destructive Mirando Corporation), and the Activist (the Animal Liberation Front, the wrong answer to the right question). Apart from Mija and Okja, no character is completely good or bad; most seem like satirical goofballs, if not antagonists. The Mirando Corporation CEO wants to feed the world more sustainably but lies about the super pig’s genetic origins and covers up the swine farm conditions. The Animal Liberation Front activists want to save Okja and the other super pigs but are themselves idiotic, self-righteous, and abusive. In the end, “the natural” survives but so too do the Technological and the Activist forces. With no true winner of the struggle, “Okja” is perhaps a perfect reflection of the obstacles we face in agriculture, sustainability, and technology today.
Besides the obvious questions of environmental and animal ethics, Okja reminded me of something I’d learned about during my time at veterinary school: Enviropig. A genetically-engineered line of pigs created by the University of Guelph, the Enviropig was developed to excrete less phosphorous in its waste, and therefore produce pork more efficiently and sustainably (see diagram below credited to http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/images/Envirogpig-Model.jpg). The Enviropig project lost funding in 2012 and the story seems to end there, but its production raised important questions about genetic modification in animals as one solution to sustainable meat production.
It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of these questions and issues. Bacon is complicated. However, going forward, I think films like “Okja” and projects like Enviropig will be beneficial in their own unique ways. One thing I hope to see more of is a distinction between environmental and animal ethics in the realm of agricultural and food sustainability. Often these two issues are muddled and misidentified. Both important issues, they should be considered separately before bringing them together. A GMO pig might be more eco-friendly but ethically-questionable. An organic, “free-range” pig might be more humane but have a higher environmental footprint. Here, the natural and the technological, the animal and the human, the corporate and the activist all come together. It’s at this junction where we’ll find the best answers to a sustainable food future.