In 2008, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its annual food security report, whose authors open with the poignant observation that "world hunger is increasing". This food crisis can be understood as an effect of economic globalization—or more precisely, of a food system that consolidates agricultural production and distribution in corporations headquartered chiefly in North America, Europe, and Asia. As the FAO report suggests, communities in the developing world are at risk within this system because they depend increasingly on imported goods for nourishment and because the number of small-scale farmers who provide an alternative food source is shrinking. The UN tacitly correlates this condition of food insecurity to factors ranging from poverty to climate change. In the contemporary period then, world hunger stands as a pressing environmental crisis that derives from a world economy in which the fully industrialized structure seems neither ecologically sustainable nor socially just.
Written nearly thirty years before the 2008 FAO report, Toni Morrison's fourth novel resonates with this paradigm of hunger by framing the food system in the terms of environmental justice—a social movement that asserts the interdependence of class, ethnicity, and ecology. Named for an African American folktale, Tar Baby imagines the contemporary era through an entwined narrative of hunger, consumerism, and environmental exploitation. Food tropes prove especially crucial to this narrative and elucidate the novel's geographic setting: the fictionalized Caribbean islands of Dominique and Isle des Chevaliers. In the novel, Isle des Chevaliers is transformed into a modern vacation community by white US candy executive Valerian Street. The island figures as a palimpsest of unsustainable environmental development and unjust trade practices, a geographic imaginary that embodies the longue durée of Caribbean history. Tar Baby concretizes this history via the symbols of Street Brothers Candy Company and the "candy giants," which together emblematize the extraction of natural resources from the region in the service of not only profit but also consumer tastes for exoticized foods like sugar and chocolate. Attentive to both social and ecological forms of injustice, the novel critiques this food economy while eschewing binaries of land and market or producer and consumer. In Tar Baby, every character is a consumer with appetites that highlight a complex relationship to the Caribbean and to the global marketplace.