How good is your memory – do you remember the cult sci-fi movie Soylent Green? I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly good movie – it was released in the same decade that gave us the Village People, but it’s got some surpsingly durable themes. It was based on the book “Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison. The book was actually based on a population of 7 billion, pretty much what we have right now. Part of what made the movie so popular was its somewhat plausible and proximate horrors about synthetic food sources. The movie depicted the year 2022, when the world was suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and the greenhouse effect. Most housing was dilapidated and overcrowded, and the homeless filled the streets and lined the fire escapes, stairways of buildings, abandoned cars, subway platforms, etc. with little to occupy them due to high unemployment. Much of the population in this future world survived on processed food rations, including one named “Soylent Green,” which is said to be manufactured from plankton harvested from the oceans. Charlton Heston plays the part of detective Robert Thorn who disobeys orders from his superiors and investigates the Soylent Corporation.
The main character’s investigation reveals that Soylent’s oceanographic reports are fraudulent and that the oceans no longer produce the plankton from which Soylent Green is reputedly made. Thorn’s friend Roth is a former college professor whose job is to sort through the now-disordered remnants of written records in order to assist Thorn with his investigation. Roth realizes that that the reports indicate a horrible truth which they find nearly impossible to believe; Soylent Green isn’t made from plankton, it’s made from something far more sinister. Unable to live with what he has uncovered, Roth opts for assisted suicide at a government clinic (in the former Madison Square Garden, which had been converted to a clinic for mass euthanasia). As Roth is dying, he watches video clips of Earth long ago when farm animals, deer, and horses were thriving and there was no mass suffering. During his final moments, he begs Thorn to follow his body to the processing centre for absolute proof of the scheme. So detective Thorn stows himself aboard a garbage truck to a human body disposal-centre, where he sees (HUGE SPOILER ALERT!) humans being converted into Soylent Green. Thorn then retreats into a cathedral filled with homeless people, where he is attacked by agents from the corporation and is seriously injured. When the police arrive, the dying Thorn urges those around him to spread the word that “Soylent Green is people,” which is of course the film’s most recognized tagline.
We’re less than 10 years away from the decade depicted in the movie and already experiencing all the symptoms of the dystopia of the movie. One of the ethical issues posited by the movie (but not the book) was that in death was to be found a valuable commodity, so valuable that the government would go to almost any lengths to conceal it. The theme of euthanasia being a preferable transition to death also featured predominantly since people had the option of their own humane euthanasia – to sell their body in exchange for a more peaceful death. This option was certainly preferable to being picked up by the city via huge vans with scoopers as occurs in the movie. Just as most people are unaware of what happens to horses sent to auctions, the moviegoer is left to wonder where these people are taken after they are picked up from the city’s streets.
In early 2013 the food safety scandal sweeping Europe brought details of how tainted our food production is. Consumers of “beef” products have had informed consent removed by fraudulent corporations that show utter disregard for their customers’ autonomy and right to choose what they eat. The scandal actually bears a lot of similarity to the plot line of Soylent Green, in that the scandal uncovered the mysterious supply chains, industrial scale adulteration, smuggling, organized crime and outright fraud – not to mention the usual finger-pointing, cover-ups and protestations of shock that accompany food crises. As in the movie, corporations have deceptively disguised a product to serve a global food market.
Just as the character Roth struggles to uncover documentation to support the hypothesis about Soylent Green, we see that there is no record-keeping mechanism for tracking the administration of drugs to horses. We now know that equine passports are duplicated or made fraudulent. Moreover, in the movie, it looks like the Soylent product is produced according to high quality control requirements, but the reality is quite different. Recent audits conducted by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office in Canada and Mexico found that these countries are not in compliance with the E.U.’s food safety standards with regard to their medical records, even though non-E.U. parties have had two years to amend their residue control programs. North American horses do not even have passports as in the EU.
Despite these important food safety policies and standards, every year thousands of animals are routinely given prohibited substances; racehorses, show horses and carriage horses regularly end up as meat intended for human consumption imported into the E.U. Last year well over 100,000 American horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, with the meat going primarily to the E.U. and Japan. These animals were never bred or raised for the table, but for other purposes, and they should be disqualified from the meat trade. In the movie, protagonist Thorn’s final warning “soon they’ll be breeding us like cattle” reminds us of what has already happened with “meat” horses bred specifically for other markets such as Japan. The movie also assumes a large variety of countermeasures simply don’t exist or were rejected – just like abandoned HACCP critical check points and government officials who either know what is going on or are complicit in burying the findings of whistleblowers who warned about horsemeat becoming prolific in food in 2011. We’ve also seen that other countries have found drugs in horsemeat from Canada, which is hardly surprising since the CFIA only tests less than 1% of horsemeat for phenylbutazone contamination.
Experience has shown that those who tend to defraud the system designed to protect humans generally have even fewer qualms about the welfare of the animals they slaughter. Food fraud also extends beyond the trade in horses. A recent two-year study on American seafood found compelling evidence of “seafood fraud.” Researchers found fish sold as snapper and tuna were likely to be mislabelled, 87 and 59 percent of the time, respectively. Overall, one-third of all samples used for the study were misidentified out of over a thousand samples taken.
This scandal has caused us to openly question what is on our plates and how it got there, and given horse advocates the opportunity to open up dialogue on the cruel treatment of horses. The public is beginning to realize that corporate food manufacturers and producers are only concerned with maximizing profits and thus, do not deserve our unquestioning trust. Emerging from the scandal is a new buzzword, “traceability” – consumers knowing where the food on their plate has come from.
By nature of the genre, science fiction has to be somewhat prophetic, or at least convince audiences that if something isn’t likely, it is at least plausible. Some of the salient points Soylent Green made back in the 70’s definitely feel like they’re already upon us 10 years too soon.