The latest film from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho, Okja, recently dropped on Netflix, and it’s received a lot of attention for its political messages. Amongst the satire’s social commentary, addressing everything from the animal cruelty of factory farming to vegetarianism and corporate greed, also lies a confused message that stokes unwarranted fears about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

World’s most huggable abomination?

The Fiction

The film centers on the Mirando corporation, a thinly-veiled stand-in for popular anti-GMO target Monsanto. The fictional Monsanto-like Mirando is depicted as a fairly two-dimensional, soulless company that would easily put profits above human safety (as if organic growers weren’t also massively profitable).

In the film, Mirando has produced a new species of animal called a superpig, which they eventually intend to turn into food. Okja is the name of one particular superpig who is raised by the young girl Mija, who has no idea her beloved Okja is headed for the slaughterhouse and embarks on an epic quest to prevent that from happening.

Though a scene late in the film involves the villains from Mirando saying they’re only concealing the fact their superpigs are genetically modified because of the negative public perception of GMOs, an earlier scene features Paul Dano’s character, ostensibly one of the film’s heroes, saying, “Because genetic mutation is too dangerous, Mirando’s been disguising it as natural, safe, and non-GMO.”

And that’s unfortunate because one of the film’s two credited writers is Jon Ronson, a journalist who’s known for skeptical investigations into fringe politics and science. Ronson is usually on the right side of science, and I’ve met him myself at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism.

This makes me wonder if Bong, Ronson’s co-writer, was more responsible for the anti-GMO elements in the film. In a recent interview with the BBC, Bong said, “It is reasonable to fear the potential disasters and dangers that genetically-modified foods may bring,” continuing, “There are people who say the danger of GM foods is being overly exaggerated but nobody is able to prove their safety either.”

The Reality

It’s true that GMOs do carry a negative stigma in the public consciousness, but fears about negative health effects from GMOs lack any scientific basis. On the contrary, the scientific consensus on GMOs safety is stronger than for man-made global warming. Much like anti-vaccine hysteria and climate denial, GMO fears are driven by political ideology, not facts.

Not only is there robust evidence for the safety of GM crops but, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they’re the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. According to The National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

And what does it even mean to call a crop “genetically modified,” anyway? GMO is not an ingredient but any of a variety of techniques. According to Steven Novella, an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine:

GM technology involves various techniques, and we should not conflate them or treat all GMOs as one single entity. Each GMO should be evaluated on its own merits. Some GMOs are created by turning off a normally expressed gene, so there isn’t even the introduction of a new gene. Others, called “cisgenic,” involve introducing genes from closely related species, ones that could be achieved through hybridization and breeding. Still others, called “transgenic,” involve genes from distant species, even crossing to other kingdoms of life (such as taking a gene from a bacterium and inserting it into a plant).

It’s the transgenic GMOs that tend to scare critics the most. Often the anti-GMO movement will use terminology like “frankenfood,” or make frightening talk about fish genes being injected into tomatoes. The problem is there’s no such thing as a “fish gene,” not really. At the genetic level, it’s pretty much all just protein. As Novella writes:

It’s not as if eating fish genes is inherently risky–people eat actual fish. Furthermore, by some estimates people share about 70 percent of their genes with fish (Kettle­borough 2013). You have fish genes, and every plant you have ever eaten has fish genes; get over it.

Also, your genome is about 5-8% virus. Whip that factoid out at your next cocktail party! Agent Smith was right.

Sadly, the unjustified fear-mongering by Bong and others can have serious real-world ramifications. A Vitamin A-deficiency health crisis exists in regions of southeast Asia and Uganda, as the staple crops there, rice and bananas, respectively, are not rich in the vital chemical. Between 250M and 500M children go blind from Vitamin A-deficiency every year, and another half that number die.

Introducing radically different agriculture into those regions to change the average diet to one abundant in Vitamin A is not economically feasible and creates a host of new problems. But scientists have developed Golden Rice and a species of banana rich in beta carotene, which converts to Vitamin A when consumed. This would greatly combat the problem in a far less invasive way, but the primary obstacle to this project is targeted misinformation campaigns by organizations such as Greenpeace, believe it or not, who have jumped on the anti-GMO bandwagon.

The Problem

Okja never reaches the point where the warnings of Dano’s character are validated, but thanks to its baseless anti-GMO stance, a film that starts out with at least some thought-provoking commentary about the ethics of our factory farming system gets mixed in with shallow criticism of a cardboard stand-in for a real company that has all the nuance of a bumper sticker.

Some audiences might not have an issue with the film’s misguided attacks on well-established science, but in a world where anti-GMO hysteria is spreading and where the companies that stoke those fears the loudest are often the ones most endangering public health, I prefer a side of reality with my superpig.

  • mem_somerville

    Yeah, just yesterday all the news broke about pigs that were modified for life-saving organ transplants. At least some science continues to move ahead anyway. Unfortunately the enviro-pigs were a consequence of fearmongers.

    • Robert Schooler

      jesus christ not you again. Are you everywhere?

      • mem_somerville

        Where are you?

        • Robert Schooler

          you get around MUCH more than any of us. Glad to know the “let nothing go” program is working out so well for you.

          • mem_somerville

            Glad to know you’ll believe any conspiracy you see.

          • Robert Schooler

            Not a conspiracy. Court-released documents from Monsanto itself.

            Glad to know you don’t care about such hilarious corporate blunders :):):)

            LOVE YOU MEM SEE YOU NEXT TIME

          • mem_somerville

            So you’ll take statements that are unsourced and randomly apply them to people without evidence again? That’s conspiracy theory. And I really think that if you loved me you would stop lying about me.

          • Robert Schooler

            do you, or do you not agree, that Monsanto has implemented a social media secret PR campaign entitled “Let Nothing Go”?

            Or do you claim that this is made up by loonies on the organic side?

          • mem_somerville

            I have no idea, and neither do you. You have no evidence of this, I have seen none.

            But don’t let that stop you–facts are no barrier to you, I know.

          • Robert Schooler

            got it thanks

          • Jason

            You chuckleheads will believe any conspiracy theory that is floated in front of you. It’s the main reason you’re so easily led.

          • Robert Schooler

            Got it. Thanks Jason

          • Jason

            Well, it was an accusation made by a loony…soooo…. You know, an accusation in court is not always the same thing as fact. Right?

          • Robert Schooler

            cool, glad to know you’re on Monsanto’s side on this one.

          • Jason

            I’m on the farmers side on this one. And definitely not on the side of nut-bag conspiracy peddlers.

          • Robert Schooler

            Got it.

          • Charles Rader

            Sorry Robert, but I have obviously missed something. What conspiracy are you talking about? What are the documents you are talking about? How do they indicate a conspiracy? And does any of this have any relationship to this article, which seems to be about a movie about a fictional company and a fictional animal?

          • Robert Schooler

            I’m making fun of mem, who comments on literally every single article ever to come out about GMOs. I’m suggesting she’s a hired Monsanto troll. Recent court-released documents, coming from one of Monsanto’s numerous lawsuit scandals, reveal that they have implemented a program entitled “Let Nothing Go” where the goal is to let no comment online critical of GMOs or Roundup go “unanswered”. A clear propaganda campaign.

            So mem is either a hired Monsanto troll, or just a sad individual who spends all day online commenting all over the internet defending the biotech industry’s clear follies. Either case is incredibly sad.

            That is all.

            Bye

          • mem_somerville

            Yes, without any evidence, you are lying about me constantly. I don’t know what turned you into that kind of sick individual, but that’s where we are.

            Why do you appear in all these threads? Are you paid by the organic or vegan industry, or whatever conspiracy they have going? We have evidence that they pay bloggers and commenters.

          • Robert Schooler

            I’m a sick individual who’s paid by the organic vegan conspiracy. Thanks mem

          • mem_somerville

            People who spend their time lying about scientists are pretty sick–climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, it’s a pathetic club. And we know you are in at least 2 of them.

            But you never explained why you are in the threads if you aren’t paid–is it possible some people aren’t paid, can you conceptualize that?

          • Robert Schooler

            I’m actually in none of those clubs. You know who is a climate denier? Owen Paterson, who was given the red carpet treatment by Cornell’s Alliance for Science to speak on campus. This is one of the main reasons I started protesting.

            Can you conceptualize that?

          • mem_somerville

            We know you harass scientists about GMOs (how you can even deny that?) and I have seen you support Vaxxed nonsense.

            Cornell also invited Druker to speak. Can you conceptualize that? What does that mean, Robert?

            So you are also going to pretend that you can’t understand why your false accusations of being paid are so stupid? You are going to move the goalposts to something else instead? Do you think we don’t see what you are doing?

          • Robert Schooler

            And why did Cornell invite Druker to speak? (Not speak but be part of a webinar)?

            Because of his insistence that they represent GMOs in a fair and balanced way. Without his constant contact with Sarah, she would have never been convinced.

            The point remains Cornell has refused to comment on Paterson’s climate change denial, in spite of him speaking on behalf of “science”.

            And I only “harass” scientists who make false claims about GMOs and refuse to critique the anti-science behavior of biotech industry.

            As for “vaxxed”, well, if you’re not concerned with CDC corruption and again, anti-science behavior, then we have a problem.

            Bye.

          • mem_somerville

            So if a denier is on your team, you’re good with it? You are hilarious, Robert. Absolutely hilarious.

            And I see you are still dodging the question of whether it’s possible to not be paid to post in threads.

            Does your inconsisentcy and avoidance make your brain hurt at all? Or do you just bury it under the conspiracy theories?

          • Robert Schooler

            I was present at the lecture. It wasn’t at Cornell, it was in the town of Ithaca. And who organized the lecture? None other than your best friend Jonathan Latham of independentsciencenews.org

            Good Job for Sarah giving his book to her fellows. I’d love it if she were to directly address her followers about the book’s contents: the clear subversion of science by the corporations, regulators, and scientists themselves in the GMO food venture.

          • mem_somerville

            They are sitting in the room. It’s in the video, Robert, unless Druker is a liar (which is entirely possible). It’s not a webinar–he called it a guest lecture on campus. And I knew it was going on because he was meeting with Alliance people that day. It was horrible to hear, but who the Alliance had contact with had nothing to do with me. I never even met one of them until the AAAS meeting this year, and then at the March for Science.

            That reminds me, I want to ask them what they thought was productive about conversing with people who hold anti-science views. Some people find value in hearing from cranks or trying to work with them. I’m not one of them.

            Yes, the fringy Jonathan’s influence is clear. I’m enjoying watching him walk further off the deep end with each post he does too. It’s like watching the Unabomber’s early drafts.

          • Robert Schooler

            I literally drove Steven to his meeting with the AFS. He was staying at my house at the time. During the same period, he gave two lectures for our non-Monsanto GMO course at Cornell.

            He might have called it a lecture, but his Alliance talk was in a room with a camera, live-streamed to an online audience.

            He brought up extremely relevant issues to GM regulation and risk, that were literally never brought up by the AFS before that day.

            Sarah (head of AFS) might be more “anti-science” than you think. And by that, I mean she has expressed to me in private concerns about glyphosate use and genetic engineering risk. She will never reveal these to her followers however.

            Good to know that Druker (who exposed fraud in the FDA) and Latham (who exposed academics working directly with Monsanto) are too “fringy” for you. But then again, we know exactly where you stand: starkly pro industrial ag, pro corporate, pro scientism flair.

          • mem_somerville

            Is Steven paid by anyone, Robert? Is Jonathan? What do you know about their financials? Or–as you keep avoiding–is it possible that people aren’t paid for their points of view on these issues? Please stop evading and answer.

            And I highly doubt Sarah is “anti-science”. Their work on Bt eggplant pretty clearly demonstrates that, but there’s a lot more work going on. And since you constantly lie, you aren’t really much of a trustworthy source. But I’ll be sure to ask her.

            Yeah, when that article had to correct all the nonsense that Druker had given Jane Goodall, wow–that was really something and the science community felt bad for her. And did Jonathan happen to tell you about how he got scientists talks shut down–or did he forget to mention that to you?

            I am sorry that you can’t see that I’m pro-science, Robert. Bt eggplant has nothing to do with corporations, industrial ag, or whatever you think scientism is. I did carry my Boston March for Science bag flair around today. I think science is a good idea.

          • Robert Schooler

            Jonathan runs a non-profit. Seems pretty humble to me. Check out their “poison papers” release which shows clear anti-science collusion between regulators and chem manufacturers (and toxicology testers).

            We’re still waiting for Sarah to release the data cited by mainstream media for the success of the Bt brinjal. BBC cites AFS, AFS won’t release evidence. How scientific.

            How is Druker nonsense? His lawsuit revealed FDA ignored their OWN scientists’ warnings and evidence in passing GMOs on the market.

            What talks did Jonathan get shut down?

            I wouldn’t strictly say Bt eggplant has “nothing” to do with corporations. And many are documenting agroecological successes with brinjals. No GMOs, low/no inputs, etc. And more personal reports from GMO brinjal farmers reveal that they indeed have to spray, often banned pesticides are used.

            We’ll see how long/well the brinjal performs. If other Bt crops are any indication….

          • mem_somerville

            So you have no idea who funds their work? Gotcha.

            Bt Brinjal performs great. I already showed you that data. But like most facts, you dismiss them.

            One more time, Robert: is is possible that people commenting on this issue are not paid to do so?

          • Robert Schooler

            Anything is possible mem. Whoever funds it, they are doing God’s work, by showing clear undeniable collusion between corporations, regulators, government, and shills.

            You call this a conspiracy.

            Show me again the data on Bt Brinjal? Honest, I can’t locate it.

            Specifically, that 90% success claim that the AFS released, cited by the BBC? Last I checked, this evidence has never been released

          • mem_somerville

            Oh, so this is a religious thing to you? That’s why science may not have value in your world. Or facts. That makes more sense to me then.

            Here’s Bt data: https://twitter.com/TamarHaspel/status/890957081632788481

          • Robert Schooler

            I get that you’re a scientism atheist type, but you don’t need to play word games with me.

          • mem_somerville

            I don’t think your zealotry is word games.

          • Robert Schooler

            cool

          • Jason

            Awesome! An anti-van troll too! That is just too good.

          • Robert Schooler

            🙂

          • Jason

            Can we make it a trifecta? Are you a climate change denier too?

          • Robert Schooler

            Well, let’s back up.

            Am I anti-GMO? Well, I have deep concerns about corporate subversion of regulatory bodies at the expense (not benefit) of science). I’m actually quite excited for legitimate biotech applications, not corporate fraud.

            Am I anti-vax? Well, I have deep concerns with corporate pharma anti-science behavior, like Merck lying about vaccine efficacy in their own papers by fudging the data. This was revealed by Merck insiders by the way. This is anti-science.

            Am I a climate change denier, like some speakers (liars) for Cornell’s pro-GMO Alliance for Science group (Owen Paterson)?

            No, in fact, I’m the only one on campus bringing up the huge contribution of GHG emissions by the corporate-CAFO-GMO fueled- animal agriculture system, especially methane, a much more pertinent GHG contributing to man-made climate change. Everyone else is too scared to talk about this, because of the insane influence of the CAFO animal meat/dairy cartel on campus.

            So I’m less of a climate change denier than most people at Cornell, and certainly all the losers defending factory farmed animal agriculture.

            I also eat a 100% plant-based diet, because of the strong science supporting it, and because it is by far the least GHG-emitting lifestyle.

            So you can go fuck off with your baseless insults. Come back to me when you embrace real science, and cease to act like a cartoon character like your disqus avatar.

          • Jason

            Ok… so you support the science that agrees with your preconceptions but not the science that doesn’t. Cool.

          • Robert Schooler

            Whatever. I contribute less GHG emissions to the planet than 99% of Americans. I could believe in flat earth and still be more scientific (where it matters, where rubber meets the road) than most of you shills.

          • Jason

            Lol. I love that you believe that bull shit.

          • Robert Schooler

            I love YOU

          • Jason

            I can’t blame you. I’m pretty awesome.

          • Robert Schooler

            🙂

          • Robert Schooler

            No car, no meat, no dairy, bike everywhere, no latest gadgets. Actively espousing veganism and converting others to the lifestyle. rarely ride planes.

            Compare that to Lynas, who loves his meat and travels all around the world shilling for GMO industry. Yet the loser still writes books on climate change. For shame

          • Jason

            Yah.. for shame that he should support what the science says is correct. What kind of zealot is he??

          • Robert Schooler

            I’m pro-“van”, being a hippy and all 😉

          • Jason

            Awww… I got bit by auto correct. That shoulda said vax.

          • Robert Schooler

            I know, couldn’t resist the easy poke at myself

          • Jason

            Ya know…on the last article, you out numbered her posts 10-1. So, are you a hired troll or a sad individual?

          • Robert Schooler

            I’m sad Jason. I also had a lot of people to respond to. Mem only had me to respond to

          • Charles Rader

            Robert, thanks for the explanation. But I think that it is you who are incredibly sad. Mary Mangan (mem_somerville) is well informed and takes offense about the dishonesty of a part of the anti-GMO movement. I have never met her, but I share her strong feelings about the injustice.

            You don’t seem to be able to accept the possibility that somebody who disagrees with you might be right, or even that somebody could disagree with you for an honest reason – she must be paid to prostitute herself, e.g. to disagree with you.

            Meanwhile, you clearly consider a goal of answering critics to be a conspiracy. That’s perverse. Without me making any judgement about Monsanto overall, it’s still very easy for me to list many many cases in which anti-GMO claims have been fake and deceptive. Who can even count the times that they have claimed that there are terminator seeds, or lawsuits about cross-pollination, etc.? When people tell lies about you and damage your business or your reputation, an attempt to rebut those lies should hardly be called a conspiracy.

          • Robert Schooler

            Glad to know you defend her, and her defense of Monsanto.

            Glad to know you’re concerned enough to speak out against the anti-GM loonies.

      • Rob Bright

        Yes, mem is a well known pro-GMO, industry spokesperson and propagandist. As you have seen already, you can find her trolling social media articles in order to promote and defend the biotech/agrochemical industry. It seems this is a full time job for her…

        • Robert Schooler

          Yup. She used my dad’s recent passing in her trolling. That about did it for me. Asked if he would have been proud of my “conspiracy theories”.

          • Rob Bright is a well known dumbass who thinks dicamba is a mixture of glyphosate and 2,4-D.
            Why else would he up-vote this comment: http://disq.us/p/1l6tvlw

            Why would you listen to someone that stupid?

  • JD

    So am I to understand that a guy who chiefly writes about comic books and cosplay, who has very clearly demonstrated intense bias toward GMOs and expresses obvious disdain towards the anti-GMO/Monsanto front which is entirely opinion based (because no actual facts supporting his seemingly unwavering trust of either are given) is expecting readers to make informed, logical conclusions about said GMOs when only spewing fiercely ignorant comments that only further convolute the thin line between what the facts (which aren’t hired, supported, funded, tested and released by Monsanto or affiliates) and fallacy actually are? One could, and likely would, argue all day about whether they THINK GMOs are safe or not, and regardless of how much science is applied or in support one way or the other, I think it’s pretty safe to say that it basically comes down to this : Monsanto is the same company who made Agent Orange (a toxic chemical used in warfare) and Roundup (which is in fact, dear readers, a chemical concoction used to destroy those pesky weeds). Now, if any of you possess even a shred of common sense, I think the REAL question here is why in the hell would anyone NOT be apprehensive (and quite rightfully so) about a company manufacturing chemical warfare controlling nearly our entire food supply!? A fact is, genetic modification is NOT natural, and, when exposed to unnatural elements, most especially in something as constant as, oh, say our damn food, I’d say, rather confidently as well, that it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s a well known fact that not enough data has been done to deem them safe for humans or consumption. Do organic farmers profit, of course, that’s a no-brainer, but are they profiting on any level to which Monsanto is? Absolutely not. They’re not even on the same page. Or even in the same book, for that matter. Hell, they’re probably not even in the same library, especially when all that Monsanto seed is muddying the organic soil – my point is, as I’ve mentioned, GMOs aren’t natural, and, when nature is messed with, things have an eventual tendency to run amuck. Now, if your health, your children’s health and the health of the overall plane in which we live, including the plants and (horrificly, the animals) in which we consume isn’t of any concern to you, well, that’s YOUR terrible, arrogant, a-hole choice, I suppose, but just know, you’re gambling with your life and the stakes are high and not at all in your favor. No amount of bashing anti-GMOers or anti-GMO fronts with sly manipulation or heavily sedated opinions in favor of GMOs will change the fact that this article, written like a child having a temper tantrum, is incredibly misinforming, convoluted and frankly, irresponsible – “Reality Check”!? Give us a break, Michael, you’re insulting us! I urge readers to take this, and all publications, since” science” has essentially been hijacked by elitist scum who (wait for it – conspiracy theory) alter the overall data which is released to the public, with a grain of salt and to do their own bloody research and come to their own conclusions about the safety of GMOs, because you won’t get a straight, definitive answer from either side.

  • Dave

    This whole “let nothing go” claim struck me as a terrible strategy. Even if I did suspend critical reasoning skills and decide that Monsanto is as evil as is claimed, a strategy to descend into the muck on *every* half-baked nutty claim seems like a terrible PR strategy from a cost-benefit analysis. I could believe they fund friendly scientists and engage in PR strategies, but you’re effectively indicating that Monsanto could engage in a project of similar scale and manpower to China’s 50-cent troll army. Even the Chinese government doesn’t have the means for that. It’s absurd.

    So I wanted to check the claim against reputable news – a claim this explosive has surely been reported by mainstream media outlets. (And do not give me that guff about mainstream media being bought and paid for – that’s garbage designed to elevate kooky bloggers to the level of professional journalists. They’re not).

    Bupkiss. First page was all healthwatch type sites. Second page was similar. There was an “investment” blog page, which had a video with a skull and cross bones. *Real* trustworthy, objective stuff.

    By page three of Google responses I had a Bloomberg report which referenced the “let nothing go” claim.
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-07-13/does-the-world-s-top-weed-killer-cause-cancer-trump-s-epa-will-decide

    It’s from a plaintiff against Bloomberg in a court case. Those are the “court documents”. Just because one party in a court case makes a claim doesn’t make it reliable, when it’s a charged court case, it’s often as incendiary as possible, in this case, it’s by someone with an obvious reason to go against Monsanto.

    I can believe Monsanto has some shady practices but this is goddamn stupid and this half-assed credulous conspiratorial crap makes me *less* likely to take claims against Monsanto seriously.

  • Rob Bright

    Just another antiscience, pro-GMO, pro-agrochemical/ biotech industry propaganda piece…

  • Rob Bright

    For all the pro-GMO shills here who continue to deny that the Monsanto Poison Papers exist, here is the evidence you’re trying to deny:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/business/monsanto-roundup-safety-lawsuit.html?_r=0

  • Helen Yang

    Glad to know that I’m not alone on the side of science.