Food Art Online
I spent way too much time thinking about agricultural economics in this one obscure anime
From time to time, I like to pose incredibly stupid questions and then figure out the answer to them.
Sometimes this takes the form of “Why does Gandalf, the wizard from the Lord of the Rings, not own a Remington 870 Modular Combat Shotgun” and then I write ~10,000 words figuring out the answer. I find this sort of thing very amusing, because I have a terrible sense of humor.
Other people — who are presumably much more well adjusted than I — apparently think that I should spend my time watching media that conforms to my tastes rather than investigate media that doesn’t. That is, I ought to watch fantasy media with guns rather than consume fantasy media without guns.1 This, of course, misunderstands the point of the exercise, but it is a semi-frequent misunderstanding.
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Hence, someone responded to my LOTR post suggesting that I watch this:
“This”, as it happens, is a twelve episode anime titled The World’s Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat which is both the worlds longest title and also a relatively accurate summary of the plot.
The show, to put it as clearly as possible, is awful. I know I’ve said that about, like, basically innocuous children’s movies and beloved genre defining works, but I actually really do mean it this time.
The plot, as much as there is one, is that the world's greatest assassin gets reincarnated (memories intact, which raises some ethical questions about his romance with 16 year olds) as an aristocratic perfume merchant in a “fantasy world of swords and sorcery”, which is very clearly just an amalgam of late medieval and early modern Europe but with a couple wizards running around, and immediately begins to assemble the Deadly Viper Assasination Squad.
As interesting as that might sound, I assure you it is not. The show it is executed with the deftness one might expect of a show clearly designed as NEET wish fulfillment. It is visually boring, the plot is somehow both contrived and nonexistent, and every female character could basically be replaced with a large breasted body pillow without meaningfully altering any story beats.2
In addition to it sucking, the show doesn’t really feature anything economic whatsoever. Which is weird for a show that spends an inordinate amount of time on the main character “inventing” and then marketing moisturizer?
This was sort of a problem for me because my whole gimmick is finding random bits of media with slightly off economics and somehow turning that into like a 4,000 word post on the economic history of how transport costs determine grain production or whatever.
Which is why I was ecstatic when I saw this:
Because the grain production around this city is just totally wrong (in that there isn’t any).
To start, here is a very simple model of how pre-modern cities start and how they work:
There are, as a general matter, two sorts of people in the world: those with pointy sticks and those without pointy sticks. A very fun fact for the people who own the pointy sticks is that they get to tell everyone else what to do. Mostly this means telling the non-sticks to give them stuff.
Of course, it’s a preindustrial economy so the only stuff most people have is, like, corn or wheat or their own labor (which the sticks can compel them to turn into wheat).3 So to start off with, the home of the pointy stick people (who will usually insist you call them “Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire.” or whatever) has large inflows of food from the area they exert control over, depending on your political persuasion we call this “taxation” or “profits from extortion”.4
They would of course prefer to turn some of this taxation into other sorts of goods and also require officials to help administer their domain, so merchants and bureaucrats and the like tend to cluster around the king (because it allows them to engage in a profession other than farming while receiving food).5 This clustering is an important strategic area because, you know, everyone important lives here, so maybe they stick up some walls or moats or other defensive devices that are useful if someone invades. Thus, the invention of the city.
That isn’t exactly correct, there are a bunch of complications I’m leaving out like what spot gets picked for the king to live in initially and lots of stuff about how in kind taxation gets turned into money, but it's, like, sort of approximately correct. The main takeaway here is that cities are going to see large inflows of food because 1. The city is mandating influxes (either directly or effectively by requiring farmers to sell goods on the market in the city to earn coin to pay taxes) 2. People need to eat food and people in the city don’t grow it, so they are willing to pay for it.
Which brings us back to The World's Longest Titled Book Series Gets Reincarnated as a Mediocre TV Show, because, looking at this city, they all should be starving to death imminently, as there are absolutely no farms visible.
I think a natural objection at this point would be that “sure, this city definitely needs food, but that isn’t the same thing as needing to grow food near the city, they can just bring it in from other places.” And this is sort of true! Lots of modern cities import food from thousands of miles away and even ancient cities like Rome relied heavily on food imports from as far as Egypt to feed their population.6
However, we need to pay attention to the underlying transport technology at play here. Modern cities, obviously, have access to modern technology and can ship grain at incredibly low costs. Premodern cities don’t have trains or container ships that can move food in bulk at low rates and so transportation made up a much higher percent of total cost.
There were, basically, two options available to any given pre industrial society that wanted to move grain: either ship it over land or you move it via water. In almost all cases, it's preferable to choose the latter.
As shown above, historically sea shipping was an order of magnitude cheaper than land haulage.7 This is problematic for the city in TWFAGRIAWAAA, as it doesn’t seem to have access to any water sources that would allow for this option, forcing it into much more expensive land haulage.
So why is shipping goods overland expensive? For one, we just lacked both dense supplies of energy and efficient means of energy conversion. A modern internal combustion engine turns the chemicals in gasoline into rotational kinetic energy that is then turned into linear kinetic energy when wheels touch the road. The best engine available to pre-industrial economies was the mammal, which takes low energy density items like maize and converts them into kinetic energy while having an incredibly high energy loss to useless systems like ‘brains’ and ‘feelings’.8
This transport becomes incredibly expensive over longer distances in particular. The reasoning here is broadly equivalent to “the tyranny of the rocket equation” where double the distance a rocket travels actually requires more than double the volume of fuel because, of course, the rocket would have to carry that new fuel you are adding during the first part of the journey increasing the weight and lowering fuel efficiency.9
Similarly, to move something with horses/donkeys/mules the further you are moving it, the more food for the animal you will need. But that fuel (wheat) also has a volume and weight that need to be hauled and as you increase the distance you are going you will need more wagons and horses bringing fuel which increases your burn rate further. This means that costs grow exponentially as distance increases linearly.10 It also means that overland transport didn’t need to be very far for costs to quickly grow out of control:
An interesting example of this is that the city of Antioch apparently experienced a famine circa 300 AD where food was not affordable at market prices despite it being widely available just 50 miles away.11
Thus, unless this city is extraordinarily wealthy and can afford basically impossible fees to ship goods across land, there should be farms nearby. And given the textual evidence that the city seems to be riddled with crime and drug addiction, this seems implausible.
What about magic? Maybe they could somehow fly the goods in? Weirdly, we get an explicit god's eye point of view explanation on the exact probability of someone being born with the genetic ability to do even basic air magic and it comes out to approximately 1/4000. And that’s genetic capability, we are also shown that it requires individual training to actually be able to use one’s magic and to even know if one can do magic requires expensive magic items to check, which is going to mean that the actual amount of mages is an even smaller percentage of the population. Furthermore, it is pretty clear that almost everyone who can use magic is nowhere near the level of energy output that would be needed to move the amount of food needed to feed a city.
For some napkin math on this, let's assume a reasonably sized city of about 35,000. There were >50 cities over 40,000 by the end of the early modern period, so this would make this reasonably large but not a capital.12 We are told that Pisear (the name of the city in the screenshot) is the second largest merchant city. Does this mean in the world? Continent? Second largest merchant city in the geographic area? So, barring clarification, this number seems fair.
Assuming that each citizen needs 2,000 calories a day, the total calories consumed a year comes out to 25,550,000,000.
One pound of (modern day) wheat flour apparently has about 1,813 calories, just under enough to feed a person per day.13
So the total weight that would need to be shipped in in pounds is 14,092,664.0927 or ~7,000 tons. For context on how that stacks up against magical capabilities, we see the next most powerful air mage to the main character (who is an anime main character and therefore obscenely more capable than everyone) struggle to run more than a few miles at ~100 miles an hour while carrying nothing, much less hauling crates of food. This is so exerting that they essentially collapse upon finishing this run and it’s fairly obvious running that fast or with a lot of weight couldn’t be done regularly.
Thus, both magical transport of grain and regular land shipping seem to be out the window as an option.
So, farms ought to be generally nearby Pisear and they aren’t; problem solved, case closed, I deem this yet another example of outrageously poor economic reasoning.
But, of course, we can go further and ask what should the farms that ought to be near this city look like in practice? This can’t be answered in too much detail because we lack information about several relevant things (what crops are available, land fertility, etc) but we can make some general predictions.
A brief discursion on what the farms maybe should have looked liked
Let’s assume that the land surrounding the city is basically even in terms of fertility. For any given spot of land, the profit one expects to receive from growing some crop c can be expressed as follows:
Profit = Q(p-c)-Qfd
Q = Quantity of crop produced
p = price of the crop at the market (which is located at the town)
c = cost per unit to produce the crop
f = transport costs per unit of distance per unit of crop
d = distance to the market
So, treating Q as a constant, your profit is going to be determined by how much higher the price of the crop is compared to cost of producing it, as well as how expensive it is to transport it to the market. This means there is some distance at which it is no longer profitable to produce the crop.
We would expect landholders to produce at all distances up to where profit is equal to zero, after which they shouldn’t. Effectively, this would give us a ring around the city like so:
Of course, there are actually multiple agricultural products with various different market prices and transport costs, not some abstract singular crop. This can be fairly easily accommodated in the model by assuming that producers will select the crop that maximizes profits given their distance from the market.14
This would effectively create rings of different types of agricultural land use around a city:
Again, this is assuming perfect homogeneity in the land surrounding the city and one singular market point, but it's a better start than not having any farms at all!
Generalizing the case
Now, given that we’ve shown that this is clearly a case of an atrocious education in basic historical geographical economics, another question we can ask is whether this is an isolated incident or widespread for the medium.
As it turns out, Crunchyroll has a very functional scroller bar that allows you to speed through shows at a very quick rate, so if someone with both way too much time on their hands and a vendetta wanted to, say, watch through the first two episodes of the top 100 or so Fantasy anime and look for this same inaccuracy it would only take about 3 hours.
Anyway, here is a list of every anime in the top 100, that also seem to have cities with no surrounding farms (just to keep you on your toes, one of these names isn’t real):
Parallel World Pharmacy
Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon
That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime
A Guy Who Reincarnated as a Fantasy Knockout and another Guy
Arifureta: From Commonplace to World’s Strongest
Smile of the Arsnotoria the Animation
Re: Zero (debatably)
How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom
Skeleton Knight in Another World
My Real Life Became an MMO, Good Thing I’m a No Life Gamer
The Strongest Sage With the Weakest Crest
Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody
Banished from the Heros Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside
Wise Man’s Grandchild
Seirei Gensouki: Spirit Chronicles
In Another World With My Smartphone
By the Grace of the Gods
An Herbivorous Dragon of 5,000 Years Gets Unfairly Villainized
The Fruit of Evolution: Before I Knew It, My Life Had It Made
That’s a hit rate of ~20%, just checking the first twoish episodes of every show, which is fairly high for a weirdly specific historical inaccuracy.
If I had to come up with a grand theory for why all of these shows have their depictions of cities without any farms, it might be that they all seem to draw heavily from video games? Like, of course it makes for a terrible experience if your Fantasy MMORPG makes you spend two hours running through wheat fields to get to the next quest, so when you borrow heavily from that medium for your shows visual style farms just sort of get left by the wayside.
Is this an important issue? No not really. I don’t think the next generation of political leaders are going to be raised on anime and therefore forget peasant agriculture exists, but it is funny.
Of course, this somewhat misunderstands my issue with LOTR but nevertheless
I’m being lighthearted here, but I should note that this show really is incredibly misogynistic. Setting aside that literally every female character in the show is either sexually attracted to the main character or his mother, it’s attitude towards sexual assault is basically “It doesn’t matter how clever or resourceful you are, but maybe if you are obedient and pretty enough a male member of the landed aristocracy will come along and save you”
Clark, P., & Stone, D. L. (2016). Economy. In The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History. essay, Oxford University Press.
Morley, N. (2004). Metropolis and hinterland: The City of Rome and the Italian economy, 200 B.C. - A.D. 200. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Landers, J. (2008). The field and the Forge: Population, production, and power in the pre-industrial West. Oxford Univ. Press.
Wrigley, E. A. (2016). The path to sustained growth: England's transition from an organic economy to an industrial revolution. Cambridge University Press.
Landers, J. (2008). The field and the Forge: Population, production, and power in the pre-industrial West. Oxford Univ. Press.
Finley, M. I. (1999). The ancient economy. University of California Press.
De Long, J. B., & Shleifer, A. (1993). Princes and merchants: European city growth before the Industrial Revolution. https://doi.org/10.3386/w4274
Grigg, D. (n.d.). An Introduction to Agricultural Geography, Second Edition. 237.