There’s something comfortably unsettling about 1970s science fiction movies set in dystopias where everyone is eating synthetic food that is either slowly killing them or making them crazy. It could be the feeling of gratitude that we don’t live that way—combined with the nervous skepticism that maybe we actually do—that makes these movies so entertaining.
What’s both intriguing and worrisome about these movies is that there always seems to be a bit of truth in fiction—these small nuggets of reality embedded in wild plot lines sometimes seem so familiar they make real-world cultural impressions, like Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle.’
The opposite question causes equal concern: how much fiction exists in reality? When we’re eating steak are we actually eating pork coated in a chemical marinade so that it looks like steak? Lies embedded in the mundane real world seem so disgusting they create nonfiction dystopias whereby rioters take the streets and hundreds of people fall ill.
At the end of the day, what are we supposed to be believe?
A Chinese author named Zhou Qing, “who has styled himself as China’s equivalent of Upton Sinclair,” has attempted to answer that question for China’s citizens, all of whom are at health risks due to an unsanitary food epidemic. The Los Angeles Times reports,
“He wrote about foods tainted with pesticides, industrial salts, bleaches, paints and, especially nauseating, imitation soy sauce made from clippings swept up from hairdressers’ floors, sold for 5 cents per pound and sent to factories that extract from it an amino acid solution.”
Qing’s book never reached the people it was most intended for; it was banned in China. Qing was also forced out of the country in 2008 due to threats and attacks from police and thugs who wanted to defuse the inevitable backlash were his message to get out.
Three years after Qing has left the food situation in China is still dire. The LA Times detailed a lavish wedding in Wufeng where an hour into the reception 286 of the 500 guests became ill from pork contaminated with a steroid called clenbuterol. Out of those guests, 192 of them had to be hospitalized.
The food conditions are so bad in China people are finding their uncooked pork glowing blue from phosphorescent bacteria, their watermelons spontaneously exploding from excesses in growth hormones, their eggs made from gelatinous compounds and the oils in their food recycled from sewer water.
These are the images movie-watchers revel in, reeling from disgust, laughing with delight but all the while wondering if and when it will happen to them. Unfortunately it’s the reality in China, sustained by the false hope that regulations will keep it from continuing.
The Chinese government is aware, however, of the cultural affects unsafe food could have on their society. “They are equally aware that tainted foods could cause what communist authorities fear most: social unrest,” says the LA Times.
Following the melamine-tainted baby formula incident that left six children dead and 300,000 ill, the Chinese government threatened the death penalty for people responsible for the production of tainted foods that killed people.
But the probable reason that regulations and punishments will be ineffective is because “Bigger, cheaper, faster is the name of the game,” says the LA Times. With a growing population, food prices raising 11.7% from last year and people still valuing cheap prices over quality products, everyone is either creating short cuts or looking for them.
In the 1973 movie ‘Soylent Green,’ Charlton Heston’s character Detective Thorn memorably said, “It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They’re making our food out of people.”
China is already working to make human breast milk come out of cows and there has been a bevy of recent studies that show it is possible to grow meat outside of the body—who’s to say the technology of these two things combined won’t one day create an actualized Soylent Green?
If humans aren’t being made into meat yet, are we at least being made into chumps?