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I imagine a world with the size of Europe and the Middle-East. In this world, with lands and seas that are comparable to Europe and the Middle East for its geography, farming is not developed. In fact, there are only some Neolithic techniques with no kind of irrigation.

There are only two countries, at the East and West of this world, that have plenty of food (the reason does not matter): food from all sorts of agriculture. These countries can be compared, for their position in this world, to Great Britain and Iran for Europe and Middle East.

Technologies and societies are comparable to late Middle Age.

Is it possible that these two countries feed the entire world by trade? What are the issues?

I already identified three:

  • What does the rest of the world exchange for the food (weapons, artisanal production, product of mines...)?
  • How to send to all countries without seeing the food perish?
  • Is sea or land transport more efficient considering the necessity of a reliable, fast and massive trade?
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    $\begingroup$ (1) What's the "Middle" East? For me (an European), the Middle East is basically Mesopotamia and Persia (or Iraq and Iran to give the modern names), eastwards to the boundaries of India. From the question I gather that the querent is an American and the "Middle" East includes what I would call the Near East or the Levant (Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt). (2) There is no way on this green Earth to transport staple foods over long distances using medieval technology. In the Middle Ages is they didn't do high-volume long-distance trade. (3) The Romans did import wheat from Egypt and Africa. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 19 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ ... And overland long-distance transport of high-volume goods with medieval (or even Roman) technology is a no-go. They simply could not do it. Not that it was prohibitively expensive (although it actually was prohibitively expensive), they just could not do it. Overland long-distance transport of high volumes of goods was not possible before the 19th century and the advent of railroads. (Or the 18th century and the advent of canals, in a pinch.) Which means that "the entire world" actually means "the sea coasts of the entire world". $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 19 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ I do mean the zone between Turkey, Egypt and Iran by "middle east". @Hoyle'sghost: I am taking Great Britain and Middle East as an example of the distance and the density of population of the imaginary world. These are the names for géographic zones and not for a country/state... $\endgroup$ – totalMongot May 19 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE totalMongot. Please check out our tour and help center. I gave you an answer which you can see below, where I challenged your assumptions about the setup. It made me realize that you might want to add the reality-check tag to your question. If you are okay with answers that say whether or not your setup is possible. $\endgroup$ – Cyn May 19 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ Since 90% (or more) of populations as this level of technology were subsistence farmers, you have (perhaps unintentionally) defined where most people will live. Subsistence farmers --by definition-- don't have money to buy expensive imported/preserved/shipped food. You'll have a few trappers and miners and soldiers in the wide, wide wilderness, and perhaps some bands of hunter/gatherers. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 19 at 23:47

10 Answers 10

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You are asking about a world with two centers of food production and asking if they can feed everybody who doesn't live in one of those centers. There are three main factors to consider:

  • preservation
  • transportation
  • motivation

Preservation

You describe a medieval level of technology (except for agriculture). During the European middle ages, people had to store food too -- over winter, and also for transport. They preserved meats and fish with salt, by drying, by fermentation (e.g. sauerkraut), and sometimes by pickling. Saltcod, for example, could be kept for years and was used for long voyages by sea.

Grains can also be stored for years, so long as you store it in a way that keeps the vermin out. Hard cheeses can be stored for at least months, sometimes longer. Fermented and pickled items last quite a long time if sealed well.

Transportation

You need to be able to move food from your centers of production to everywhere else. This is going to depend on where your population centers are and how your population is distributed.

You'll need roads or trade routes on land, but if you have large inland populations, it's going to take a lot of wagons (etc) to carry the food to feed them. So try not to do that. Make your centers of production coastal so you can use ships to deliver food to other coastal areas; it'll be faster than going overland on medieval-quality roads and you can carry more. A boat can travel farther in a day than ox-pulled carts. Boats that hug the coast are an ancient technology; by the medieval period boats were seafaring too. Also, don't neglect your rivers (for example, in our Europe, the Danube).

Motivation

Your food-producers are going to want something in exchange. You have many options, though some of them raise the question of why these people don't have food of their own:

  • Textiles: spinning and weaving wool and flax (linen) have been common since ancient days. In the middle ages weaving could be quite elaborate, including brocading and use of gold. Embroidery was also advanced. And you know all those tapestries in medieval castles and manors? Somebody made those. One issue with textiles is that people who have sheep (for wool) also have milk and meat, so your inland people will have some local food but not enough.

  • Spices: perhaps your central land is no good for crops, but people have learned to cultivate spices, which can be smaller operations. The spice trade was a big deal in the middle ages, but you can't really live on cinnamon and saffron.

  • Finished goods: tools, utensils, furniture, hinges, nails, weapons... people need lots of things that require specialized skills to make.

  • Education: maybe some of your inland population centers are centers of education and arts, not production.

These are just examples. There are lots of things your non-food-producing communities can offer in exchange for food. The items I've listed involve a lot of people, potentially the whole community; not everyone is a master carpenter (or whatever), but a master carpenter is supported by tool-makers, wood-gatherers, and so on. So it's reasonable to think that a community's output could be traded for food for the whole community and not just the craftsmen.

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    $\begingroup$ Hard cheeses in wax can last much longer than months. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend May 19 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend thanks; I wasn't sure about duration without a cool environment. (At home you can use a cave or cellar; during transport your options are more limited.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 19 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ As Sun Tzu and others have pointed out, transporting food long distances by means of muscle power is going to consume the vast majority of the food, leaving you with 1/20 at the end. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack May 20 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @totalMongot They wouldn't. There's a few things that would be missing in such a diet, as seagoing crews discovered - scurvy is a problem. However, you can offset that with fresh foods that last long on their own - like limes. $\endgroup$ – Luaan May 20 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ There is an important preserved food missing in your list: Sauerkraut (Or Kimchi or fermented cabbage, whatever you might call it). If it is properly stored, it can keep for years, and it has been long known to prevent scurvy and other diseases related to malnutrition on long journeys. $\endgroup$ – mlk May 20 at 9:47
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Monica laid out the main issues quite well and I'm not going to attempt to duplicate her answer. My answer will focus on some additional elements.


Not allowing people to produce their own food is akin to holding them hostage. Or a form of servitude. At the very least, it's a tool of oppression.

One example is early 20th century India. Britain ruled the country and one tangible element of their control is that people were not allowed to make salt, something those who lived near the coast had been doing for millennia. They did this so that Britain could maintain its monopoly on the salt trade.

Not only did Britain now control a food that was essential to life (you can live without any particular meat or vegetable but you can not live without salt) but they destroyed the livelihoods of Indian saltmakers.

The actual harm this rule caused, as well as the symbolism of oppression, led to a year's worth of civil disobedience that turned public opinion against Britain and ultimately led to India's independence.

Lesson: Don't mess with people's food.

How would you enforce a rule against growing your own food in the countries forced to import it? Obtaining local food must be possible or there wouldn't be people living there in the first place (there are only very rare situations where people move into an area knowing they will have to import all their food, like Antartica, or places where food is difficult to obtain and the government deliberately erased cultural knowledge of how to do it, like Nunavut, Canada).

How can you keep people from harvesting food from wild plants, from hunting, from planting gardens? It makes no sense. Your tech level is Medieval so there is not modern monitoring, political control can be intense but would need to be motivated, and your claim that there are no irrigation systems doesn't ummm hold water.

This implies that people wouldn't live near fresh water sources. But how do they get water to drink? All lands, even deserts, have plants and animals adapted to the climate. People have always lived in low-water areas and done just fine.

The only reason to import all food is political.

That means the government has to be on board. This worked with salt in India because the British were the Indian government. But people will not choose themselves to deprive themselves of their own food. It just doesn't happen.

Now, you can create a situation where certain foods, even staple foods like wheat, are imported. But the trade for it might very well be other kinds of food. Or, sure, it could be products. But it doesn't have to be.

Even if you set up a believable situation where certain foods are imported, you need fresh foods to be local. Dairy (if used), eggs, meat (though live animals can be transported elsewhere for slaughter), and most fruits and vegetables. In Medieval times with slow transportation, the only foods you can export/import over the distances you describe are grains, hay (for animals), dried produce, dried meat, and preserved foods like cheese, wine, jam, etc.

To sum up:

  • Transportation in the setting you describe would not allow food trade in anything but grains and a few other preserved foods.
  • The setting you describe is one where people could produce all or most of their own food if allowed.
  • It would be impossible to keep people from obtaining at least some of their food locally (and detrimental to their health if you succeeded).
  • You would require a political situation where the local governments are in fact the exporting countries, or corrupt enough to go against their own interests.

This is a frame challenge. What you describe isn't possible, not without some serious geographic changes, forced servitude in no-grow areas, and/or extreme political control.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you I note that grain seems to be a possible product in my setup. Is it an important percentage of the consumption of food in medieval era? If yes, the "new" set up could be countries having their own meat and fruits and vegetables from local production, not organized, and the grain, somewhat 50% (credible?) of the consumption, is imported. For the question of why do they import, the reason is history of this imaginary world: the lands have been colonized by people living on importation, that establish massive cities that are too big to be fed by the local territory. $\endgroup$ – totalMongot May 19 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, grains are huge in most non-nomadic cultures. Sometimes potatoes or other tubers take their place. 50% is not unreasonable. The only reason I can think of for the setup you describe is a migration of people specifically for an industry or task where the food situation is known ahead of time and planned for. For example, mining or quarry work. Now your setup can make sense. Not for the entire continent, but for a large portion of it. $\endgroup$ – Cyn May 19 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ Grains (bread, pottages, beer, etc) made up a huge portion of a commoner's daily diet in the middle ages. Nobles ate better. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 20 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio For sure, though location matters a lot. Once source says that "In Asia, more than 2 billion people rely on rice for 60 to 70 percent of their calories." Which is a bit odd since we don't know which 2B people they mean. This might mean rice makes up half the weight or volume in the diet, or not. In other places the main food might be bread but a lot of calories came from tubers and legumes. And in Medieval times, there was a middle class of sorts. Not just peasants vs nobles. $\endgroup$ – Cyn May 20 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ The British built a huge fence/hedge along the Inland Customs Line to protect the Salt tax. atlasobscura.com/articles/colonial-india-british-hedge-salt-tax en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inland_Customs_Line $\endgroup$ – Tangurena May 20 at 14:33
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I would also agree that what you propose is plainly not possible.

By claiming that food production technology are not even medieval but roughly neolitic, you are making the situation worse, not better. The lower your technology is, the more it is labor-intensive - so it means there are more people employed in agriculture, not less. Without significant technological or magical advances in agriculture you will not be able to have the minority of the population to feed the majority.

As far as I understand, you need the level of organisation, transportation and urban development beyond at least 1600s level, if not later (per the data here https://ourworldindata.org/employment-in-agriculture).

Another question is - what would the remainder of your population be doing. Before the certain level of technological development there is plainly not enough work in other areas. If you do not produce and service complicated machines, and do not mine fossil fuels to power those machines (or any magical equivalent thereof), you plainly don't have where to put to work your huge population.

Attacking the problem from another angle - before rapid transportation and technological advances such as refrigeration, pasterization and conservation, it wasn't possible to supply remote areas with food completely. Even if grain was imported, fruits and vegetables (vitamin source) and animals (protein source) would be produced in place.

Other people had said about the futility of the attempts to control and centralize the food supply - and the best example of such attempts is the Soviet Union. Even the closed cities that, presumably, were supplied wholly by imported food actually had people growing vegetables and raising hens on their private plots. In general, the amount of food grown privately on small plots covered almost a half of any Soviet citizen ration. At the same time, a huge amount of food that was produced officially in kolkhozes did in fact spoil before being transported. And that in a modern state with trains, cargo ships and canning factories. A medieval state would just but be able to preserve even a half of food it produces.

I can envision a reversal of your situation - two giant cities that are supplied by the rest of the world. That makes more sense in the colonization scenario too. If the cities are metropolises, the sources of knowledge, science and technology, uniquely situated on the trade routes, they can hold a huge population that is not employed in agriculture.

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No, middle age farming technology is not advanced enough to generate any significant surpluses.

Estimates vary, you can find different numbers, but generally you find 80% or more of the population was directly involved in agriculture during medieval times. This means you need 4 people to generate food for themselves and a single other person. This means the rest of the world can have at most 20% of the population of your single food producing country.

You can fudge the numbers a bit by postulating extremely good soil, but to get a minority feeding the rest of the world, you need agricultural techniques that are significantly more advanced, and likely not achievable without industrialization.

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    $\begingroup$ Add in transport losses basic infrastructure and you are looking at around 95-99% of the planets population has to live in the farming countries. $\endgroup$ – John May 20 at 13:02
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Your biggest problem is workforce. In mediaeval societies, perhaps 80% of the total workforce was employed in agriculture. Having all the agriculture in two countries won’t change that, so 80% of your total global population needs to live in those two countries. And in fact it’s more than that, because they can’t all work in agriculture — they will need non-agricultural workers employed in those countries providing services that can’t be imported, such as barbers, doctors, legislators, clerics, builders, farriers, stablehands, innkeepers, shopkeepers, and so on.

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  • $\begingroup$ I totally agreee, but as I said in the question, "the reason does not matter": the producing countries are able to produce for everyone with only 20 to 30% of the population living there. That is part of the setup. $\endgroup$ – totalMongot May 19 at 19:45
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Population of neolithic Europe went from about 2 mio. to about 6-8 mio. depending on when you consider that time period to end.

With your described scenario, a good part of that population would live in the places that have abundant food supply, so you only need to feed the rest. Let's say 4 mio. or less.

The city of Rome is said to have 1-2 million at peak during the time of the Roman Empire and was in a large part fed from abroad, e.g. grain from Egypt, in addition to local food.

So we know for a fact that a well-organized empire can feed 1-2 mio. at distance. We can assume that other major cities also received shipments of food.

To extend that to the entire continent would require considerable logistics because land travel is a lot less efficient. If you postulate that the vast majority of the population lives close enough to rivers to be supplied by boat, it might be possible, but...

This feat requires an excellent supply chain logistics. Any interruption such as a war would immediately threaten the food supply for affected regions. The whole system would likely not have much reserves or margin of error because it is already operating near its limit.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wow a city of 1-2 million back in those days. Must have been huge. Or you mean whole empire was 1-2 million in total? $\endgroup$ – mathreadler May 20 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ Rome, the city. Numbers are not certain, but 1-2 million at its peak is the range that most historians agree about. A few think it was less, a few think it may have been 3 or even 4 million. But the consensus seems to be the 1-2 mio. number. $\endgroup$ – Tom May 20 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ Most towns are on rivers, because water is needed for human consumption, agriculture, and a lot of industry. The big problem would be that they have to be navigable as far as the sea. That would probably require previous generations to have invested in major projects to clear rocks and smooth waterfalls, or bypass them entirely with canals. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor May 21 at 7:38
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Yes this would work if food is actually not that valuable and the areas without food have something way more rare and useful.

The surrounding areas would be the powerful areas, the food producing areas would be the ones at the bottom of the totem pole.

In a way that's how it works in the current modern world. For ex Saudi Arabia imports almost 100% of their food. They could grow food but don't bother doing that because it's much easier for them to sell their oil. Saudi Arabia is much wealthier than Ukraine although Ukraine can produce more food. That's because food is not rare and valuable in the modern world. So make it the same in your medieval world.

So in a medieval setting, you would need the surrounding areas to have something really valuable, rare and useful. Maybe some special ingredient that is needed for magic.

In that case it would make sense that those areas that cannot grow their food wouldn't mind because everyone would trade food for their magic powder without hesitation.

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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm. In the Late Middle Ages (the period defined by the OP), food was not cheap, and transport was very expensive. $\endgroup$ – user535733 May 19 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ In the setting, there is in fact a magic powder to ensure the possibility of growing massively food with a hundred workers $\endgroup$ – totalMongot May 20 at 18:58
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No

For many reasons.

Malthusian Trap

The late Middle Ages are well within the Malthusian Trap. In the Malthusian Trap, population scales rapidly with food supply and other wealth.

An excess of food results in rapid population growth, which then makes food scarce again.

It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that any part of the world escaped the Malthusian Trap; any civilization not in that Trap would not be "late Middle Ages" like.

So population ends up being concentrated where food is plentiful, and elsewhere starves. At best small colonies can exist elsewhere, with goods are sufficiently valuable people where the food is plentiful are willing to ship off food despite locals starving.

The Rocket Equation

Bulk transport is expensive. On land, doubly so.

A horse can eat 20 lbs of food per day. If the cart has a ton of goods (2000 lbs) that is 1% of the mass of the cart per day.

Moving at a human walking pace of 5 km/h (it is pulling a tonne), over a 8 hour day, that is 40 km for 1% of the mass of food, on high-quality roads.

Europe is about 5000 km from one side to another; that is 125 days. 1.0 - 0.99^125 means that you lose a good 72% of the food you want to transport in feeding the horses at best, and that ignores feeding the human or repairing or horse shoes.

Long distance transportation of food calories by land isn't plausible, even with high quality roads, prior to an energy source as abundant as coal to pay for the transportation work.

Water based transport is better; but mass cargo shipment in the late Middle Ages isn't something that plausible. You'd have to have ridiculous sized fleets and massive amounts of ship building to keep them intact.

The middle ages end with the 15th century; well into the 16th century oar-power was important. The Age of Sail is basically the time when long-ranged Sailing trade became dominant; as you want to be set in Late Middle Ages, you aren't in the Age of Sail.

Ocean transport is going to be better than horse-and-cart, but not so much so that you can practically have a fleet capable of carrying enough food for a non-trivial population over 1/4 of the world.

Power

Starving is a lot of power. While the non-food producing areas could have a huge army to punish and invade the food-producing areas, this just moves the power to that which controls the food-producing areas. And being able to destroy them (or prevent trade) then becomes power.

Your society isn't going to be stable, and being away from the source of power (food) is going to be enslavement.

Even accounting for that, you'll have a complex web of transport; each node in the web has power over the next ones. They don't have to field an offensive army to lay siege to things further along the trade network, just disrupt trade going past them.

The instability of the situation will prevent stable societies from forming that depend on the food transport far away from the sources.

Singularity

So, let us say we solve all of this. Society is out of a Malthusian Trap, it has a world-spanning Sail based (low rocket equation) transportation network, and it is web-like and/or has a form of law that is sufficiently strong enough that the food continues to flow, and everything is stable enough.

Then you won't stay Late Middle Ages very long. You'll have large populations not spending their entire lives scraping for foods; a society of artisans and crafters. You'll have an economic explosion of activity as innovation piles on innovation.

You are going to experience an Industrial Revolution or a Renaissance.

The Renaissance was the Merchant class displacing the land-owning Gentry and having a run-away wealth experience in Northern Italy.

The Industrial Revolution started in Netherlands, where the Malthusian Trap was defeated by a percent or so per year for a century, resulting in the wealthiest population in Europe (and possibly the World). Then the UK mimiced it, outpaced it, and then started a "virtuous" feedback loop of coal mining and steam power.

Basically, areas of Europe in the Middle Ages where most of the population wasn't dedicated to growing Food where areas that didn't stay very "Middle Ages"-like for very long.

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  • $\begingroup$ In 125 days, you'll probably have an empty cart and a dead horse (Even if the cart is [almost] empty, the horse will still need a significant fraction of those 20 pounds, not 1% of whatever's left) $\endgroup$ – Dan Mašek May 21 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DanMašek Start with 100 carts. Go 1 day. Feed all horses from one cart. That cart stops (and its food budget comes out of, for example, the budget for carrying goods back from the destination). 99 carts continue, thus reducing food requirements by that 1%. At the end of the 125 day journey, only 28 out of every 100 carts remain. To return those 28 carts (and their horses) is another problem, but 28% of the food gets there (roughly). $\endgroup$ – Yakk May 21 at 20:21
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There are a lot of answers that make a lot of great points about why this won't work.

But there's another factor, and one that plays into our own world: having only one producer of a necessary commodity is a ticking time bomb.

Let's say that you solve or hand-wave the problems of preservation, transportation, and exploitation. What happens when raiders disrupt supply chains? Or hostile polities cut off another's trade route? Crop blight? Civil war in the food-producing country?

I realize this is a story, and you can get away with a certain suspension of disbelief, but I can't help but think this is going to strain credulity: the kind of stability that this scenario requires is rare in human history and generally was propped up by a military superpower (e.g. the Pax Romana).

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I'd like to provide two separate scenarios for you to consider. The differences hinge on the value of food. In our world, food is quite scarce and not very nourishing compared to the energy required to transport it. This makes it uneconomical to transport it long distances without a relatively high level of technology. You don't have to have this dynamic in your world, however. It is fictional, after all. Depending on where you place food on the spectrum from abundant and nourishing to scarce and nutrient-poor, different dynamics would arise your world.

Scenario 1: Food is Valuable and Scarce

In your world, perhaps civilization started in the areas that produce food, and a small portion of the population became very rich and came to control a large portion of the weapons and wealth of the society. These individuals then retreated away from the food production areas and project their influence by the use of military force, compelling the food producing areas to continue to bring them food. (This is similar to the setup in the Hunger Games, in which the relatively resource-poor but power-rich Capital compels the flow of resources from the Districts).

Some potential reasons for the retreat from the food production areas include:

  1. Greater natural beauty away from food.
  2. Disgust with the living conditions in the food producing areas.
  3. Greater available of building materials for construction of more luxurious dwellings.

Scenario 2: Food is Abundant and Nourishing

Food is extremely abundant and nourishing at the ends of your world, but building materials are scarce. In the center of the world, building materials are abundant but food is scarce. Since the end regions want to live in houses, they gladly exchange food for wood, iron, stone, etc. Because relatively little food is required to fuel its transportation, this is not a problem.

Commonalities Between Scenarios

There must be something particularly desirable about the food-less areas or undesirable about the food-producing areas. Otherwise, people are likely to simply stay near the food.

Food-less areas could be:

  • Very beautiful
  • Abundant in building materials
  • Very safe

Food-producing areas could be:

  • Swampy, smelly, and/or buggy
  • Disease-ridden
  • Full of dangerous animals
  • Lacking in building materials of any kind (no trees or ores)
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