Les Firbank



Prior Pursglove College, Guisborough, 1968-75: Imperial College 1976-79: University of East Anglia, 1979-82


A levels in biology, chemistry and maths: BSc degree in zoology; PhD in ecology

Work History:

2010-now, Scientist, University of Leeds; 2006-2010; Head, North Wyke Research; 1991-2006: Senoir ecologist, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology: 1985-1991: Lecturer, Cambridge College for Arts and Technology: 1982-83: Senoir research assistant, University of Liverpool

Current Job:

Research scientist


University of Leeds

Me and my work

I’m an ecologist, interested in how we can use our land and natural resources more sustainably

I was brought up on a small farm, and was interested in the plants and animals around me, so I was drawn to studying ecology and working in farmland. My early work looked at crops and weeds, before leading large research projects looking at how different types of farming affect the environment. These different types of farming included both organic and GM crops. I also worked on a project called Countryside Survey, that gives a national audit of the landscape and vegetation of Britain every few years.

This photo shows some of the Countryside Survey team comparing notes about the hedgerows and vegetation of this area of Cumbria.myimage2

I now divide my time between more research and working with industry and Government to provide expert advice on agriculture and the environment.

My research focuses on how to measure environmental change, using new sensing devices and asking farmers the right questions. I don’t know a lot about the technology, just how the results can be used.

I give advice in several ways. I’m a Director of the Red Tractor company, that sets up the standards and assurance on all our food with  small Red Tractor on the label. This label means you can be confident that the food is safe, and has been produced with animal welfare and care for the environment in mind. I’m also on the committee that advises the Government whether or not to allow the use of GM crops: this committee is called ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. We look at applications by companies to introduce GM plants and animals across Europe, and suggest whether or not they are safe to the environment.

My hopes for GM

My hopes for GM are that we can have a constructive, well-informed debate about which particular GM plants and animals we want

Scientists are developing new types of crops that are resistant to pests and diseases, that are more nutritious, and can grow on soils that are too dry or salty for normal crops. I hope these will allow us produce more food with less environmental harm than current crops; GM won’t save the world, or feed all the hungry people, but it will help.

I hope that we will see more dramatic benefits from GM for medicine. It’s becoming possible to make mosquitoes resistant to malaria; produce large amounts of vaccines in seeds, that they can be transported around very world very cheaply. Some of these new techniques are called GM. I’m hopeful that some of these will work. GM is already being used to develop medicines: I hope that the health of people around the world will benefit.


My fears for GM

That we don’t lose out by a fear of new technology

I have two main fears about GM technology:

The first is that people think that GM technology is all that is needed to feed the world. We also need changes to how farmers manage the land and how people can get access to the food they need.

The second is that people stop a potentially useful technology from being used, without understanding more about what it is about, how it works, and what the safeguards are.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Opinionated, curious, patient

What is your favourite film?

Changes every day – today it’s Fargo

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I wish I had more energy; I wish I could paint (pictures, not walls); I wish I had more time for playing and listening to music

What's your favourite view in the world?

From the North Yorkshire moors, looking north towards Middlesbrough and Newcastle [myimage1]

What's the best thing you've done in your career?

Led the major field experiment on environmental effects of GM crops