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978 90 5727 048 2


432 pages




A. Duncan Brown : Feed or Feedback

Agriculture, population dynamics and the state of the planet



With the advent of agriculture the dynamic relation between the human population and its food supply moved from negative to positive feedback, a change which is the primary cause of all major environmental problems.


A vicious circle

A natural ecosystem is controlled by negative feedback in which overconsumption of plants will lead to death or starvation by relevant animal species. This situation changed with the advent of human agriculture. From that time onwards the interaction between the human population and its food supply moved from negative to positive feedback. Each time the human population increased beyond the point at which it could be supported 'naturally', the response was to produce more food and hence sustain a larger population which could, in turn, produce more food. This is a vicious circle.

Endangered environment

These changes were accompanied by an astonishing range of technical and technological achievements. In some ways those achievements might be included among the most ecologically dangerous components of human activity, not simply because of their direct environmental impact, but also because of the complacency and over-confidence that they generate. As a result, human impact on the natural environment reduced the number of species of both plants and animals, thereby simplifying ecosystems, reducing resilience and increasing the vulnerability of those systems to a range of threats. And, of course, human activities have been directly responsible for widespread soil degradation and erosion, depletion and pollution of water supplies, and air pollution.


A positive feedback system will destroy itself, unless a limit is placed on the flow of energy through that system. There are no 'ifs' or 'buts' about that. The positive feedback interaction between population and food supply is leading us to a collapse. All other environmental problems are, in a way, symptoms of this interaction.

The book

Feed or Feedback is divided into three parts. The first deals with the birth and subsequent evolution of agriculture, and its interaction with urban sanitation. Part two discusses major dimensions of human impact on the planet, an impact which could conceivably lead to human extinction. This capacity is a direct consequence of the size of the human population and its technological sophistication, neither of which would have been possible without agriculture. The two final chapters (part three) outline some basic responses needed to avoid the most serious components of that impact and some barriers in the way of those responses. The most fundamental of those barriers is to be found in aspects of human behaviour.



“Feed or Feedback makes a complex and vital issue of global survival accessible to the lay reader, and is a most valuable contribution to the globalisation debate. I hope it will be widely read by those concerned for our ecology, and the disastrous things we are doing to the earth that feeds us.” – John le Carré

"Professor Brown has written an outstanding book detailing and documenting world natural resource (soil, water, and energy) problems facing world agriculture and food security. Confirming the food problem, the World Health Organization reports that more than 3 billion people are malnourished in the world - the largest number of malnourished ever in history." David Pimentel - Professor of Entomology, Cornell University, author/editor of Biological Invasions, Ecological Integrity, and many more

"This is not so much another gloom and doom book, but rather a technical - although lucid and very accessible - account of how many current agricultural practices simply are not ecologically sustainable. There is a particular focus on phosphorus (the fifth most abundant element in living things, after C, O, H & N) but much important unfamiliar ground is also covered in a lively way. The book deserves a wide audience." Robert M. May - Professor of Oxford OM AC Kt PRS, President, The Royal Society

For more praise: pdf praise for Brown


Austin Duncan Brown was born in New Zealand in 1925. He moved to Australia in 1928, taking his parents with him. He holds degrees of B.Sc and M.Sc from the University of Sydney and Ph.D. from the University of Manchester.His professional work has been as a Research Chemist with Australian Paper Manufacturers (1947-1949); Research Officer/Senior Research Officer with CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Divisions of Food Research (1950-1956) and Fisheries and Oceanography (1958-1960); Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor in Microbiology at the University of New South Wales (1961-1974); Foundation Professor of Biology at the University of Wollongong (1974-1985); Visiting Fellow, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University (1992). Currently, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wollongong.


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