The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: Putting the 'Meat' in Media

Okja

If you tuned in to this year's Oscars ceremony, you probably heard about director and screenwriter Bong Joon-ho’s unprecedented win of not one, but four Academy Awards for his critically-acclaimed film, Parasite. Receiving awards for Best Director, Best International Feature Film, and Best Original Screenplay, it is also the first non-English film in history to have won for Best Picture, and it is the first-ever Oscar to be nominated and awarded to South Korea. Parasite also won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards, among other accolades. 

Parasite is not, however, Joon-ho’s first movie to have had such a visceral effect on its audiences; premiering at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Joon-ho’s Okja made waves with its portrayal of the media’s glossing over of animal cruelty and genetic modification as issues that surround us in our daily lives. In the film, a young girl named Mija has grown up in rural South Korea with her grandfather and Okja, the “super pig” they have been raising. Ten years prior, the CEO of Mirando, a multinational agro-chemical corporation, started a competition to see who could breed the best “super pig.” A decade later, Okja is proclaimed to have won. 

When the time comes for Okja to be taken away as the poster-creature for the Mirando Corporation, Mija won’t give her up without a fight. With help from the Animal Liberation Front, an international coalition of animal rights activists (that exists today) that has often been labeled as “extremist” and “terrorist” due to their direct action-based tactics, Mija risks her life to expose the cruelty being perpetrated by Mirando in order to save Okja and the other captive super pigs. 

Without giving away the entire plot, I will say that Okja is both a heart- and gut-wrenching story that portrays the stark reality of our global industrial livestock manufacturing systems. For thousands of years, we have been domesticating animals to use for our own benefit, and in more recent decades, this process has been streamlined into an assembly line that can be replicated and scaled to keep up with our ever-growing demand for animal protein. 

In our factory system, we feed cows cheap, subsidized corn instead of the grass that their bodies should be fueled with. Instead of giving animals more space and fresh air, they are packed into warehouses and fed antibiotics so that they survive long enough to be slaughtered, packaged, and served. The realities of this system are not ones that many of us want to think about, so for the most part, we avoid the subject. From education stems awareness and action, however, making it imperative that we dig deeper into where our food—and our values that surround it—stem from. 

Consider the Narrative

From our reliance on animals as a source of protein has come the notion that we “need” this in order to survive. Unless you are allergic to all other forms of protein, this is not the case. Once we understand how little protein we actually need to consume on a daily basis, and how readily available that protein is in non-animal forms, we can shift our focus to the more critical issues that plague our food system. For example, we must start worrying less about whether we are taking in enough protein and more about how much food we’re wasting in the process. Or turning our attention to the impact that our choices have on the earth and the workers involved in growing, packaging, and distributing these products before they even get to our table. 

Specifically with animal protein, it is a privilege (that should be used judiciously) to be able to afford these products; if the true cost of meat were actually taken into account, this might cause us to reconfigure our meal planning. When purchasing food, however, cost is just one of the many factors that should play a role in our decision-making. 

Consider the Source

The story behind where our food comes from is seldom told, and more often than not, products are not clearly traceable. Where is your meat coming from? Do you know the farmer raising it? What about the workers employed to process it? Are they treated fairly and paid a living wage? How far away is that meat being produced and shipped before getting to where you’re buying it? What kinds of certifications does that producer hold -- and, more importantly, do they mean anything

Consider the Alternatives

Ask yourself: do I need to be consuming this much meat? In many parts of the world, it is difficult to avoid consuming meat when animal fat is used to cook other dishes, but outside of the western world, it is also rare that meat makes up the majority of one’s plate. Rather than putting meat as the centerpiece of your plate, make it a garnish

At this point in time, it is easier than ever to consume meat alternatives instead of the real thing. But some of these alternatives have downsides of their own; for example, soy, corn, and palm oil form the basis of many faux-meat products, and these are often farmed as a monocrop that exhausts the soil of nutrients, requires large-scale deforestation, and facilitates habitat destruction.

No product is without an impact, but some are far better than others. Oftentimes, it’s easier than we think to make a simple change to our diet—even just paying a few cents more for our food—that can drastically reduce our carbon footprint and improve the lives of the people who produce it. And sometimes all the inspiration we need to change our eating habits is a movie about a girl and her beloved super pig.