Hunger is a powerful force in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel of the Great Depression, but so is the fertility of California’s landscape. The bounty of the harvest, tragically, does not translate into food for the workers — and in fact, with the economy having ravaged the chain of commerce, much of the food is destroyed rather than eaten.
“The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all,” Steinbeck wrote. “Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground…a million people hungry, needing the fruit — and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.”
Steinbeck’s observations were a depiction of reality: During the Great Depression, plummeting prices and adverse weather conditions resulted in a crisis for the U.S. farming industry and its stock. Government intervention in the early 1930s led to “emergency livestock reductions,” which saw hundreds of thousands of pigs and cattle killed, and crops destroyed as Steinbeck described, on the idea that less supply would lead to higher prices.
Now, as experts warn that the economic effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could be comparable to the Great Depression in the U.S. and around the world, and as the International Monetary Fund predicts that the “Great Lockdown” could cause the worst recession since the 1930s, similar scenes of crop destruction have taken place, with reports of U.S. farmers having to make difficult choices to dump their milk, slaughter their livestock and smash their eggs. And around the world, COVID-19 has brought food supply chains to a standstill, as farmers in China have been unable to sell their produce at closed wet markets and unable to access animal feed; in the U.K. and Germany, there has been a shortage of workers to help with the spring harvest due to lockdown and self-isolation measures.