Prof Les Firbank


My research has always been influenced by my own farming background, and so has focussed strongly on interactions between farming and the environment. After a few years teaching biology at what is now Anglia Ruskin University, I joined the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in 1991, looking at large-scale interactions between agriculture and biodiversity. I led the UK Farm Scale Evaluations of GM crops, the largest agro-ecological experiment undertaken at the time; I am still highly involved with the risk assessment of  genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through my membership of the EFSA GMO panel.

I also studied the ecological consequences of organic farming and agri-environmental schemes. I moved to become Head of North Wyke Research in Devon, which focuses on environmental aspects of cattle and sheep farming, and has now merged with Rothamsted Research. I led the design of the North Wyke Farm Platform, a farm-size experimental facility to test the sustainability of different approaches to livestock farming. I have led the work on standardising ecological variables within the European ExpeER programme.

I was appointed as Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at Leeds in February 2014, after being appointed Visiting Professor in 2010. I am now concentrating on the idea of sustainable intensification (SI). This is all about increasing both food production and environmental quality of agricultural land at a time when weather is becoming more extreme, and global demand for food, water and other ecosystem services from the land is rising. These issues involve highly collaborative, interdisciplinary teamwork. My concern is to make sure that SI really delivers benefits both in the present and in the future, and we are measuring the changes in the right ways. This can involve information on the farm performance, explored in the Defra Sustainable Intensification Research Platform, a highly collaborative national programme of research and knowledge exchange.

It also involves much more detailed ecological studies, such as those being undertaken by the White Rose Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture, a grouping of scientists from Leeds, Sheffield and York that are working at the University of Leeds farm on new ways of increasing soil function of arable land to increase the resilience of crops to extreme weather within the Soil Security programme. This work is also being extended to China within a Newton-funded project based at Ningbo. I am also increasingly interested in urban food systems, I am a member of the Leeds Food Partnership, that seeks to support a healthier and more sustainable food system for Leeds.

External appointments:   

  • Member, European Food Standards Authority GMO Panel
  • Member, Leeds Food Partnership
  • Member, Feed Leeds Committee
  • Member, Panel of Advisors, Commonwealth Scholarship Committee.

Editorial boards

  • Speciality Editor, Sustainable Intensificaiton and Ecosystem Services, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
  • Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
  • International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability
  • Journal of Environmental Management

Research interests

My research addresses the sustainable intensification of agriculture - i.e. how to get more production with less use of natural resources. My background is agro-ecoloogy, and I co-led the Enclosed Farmland section of the the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, and co-led the assessment of farm performance within the Defra Sustainable Intensification Research Platform. which addresses how well farms of different types perform in terms of produciton, finances, environmental impact and social benefits.

I am also working with colleagues in the White Rose Sustainable Agriculture Consortium on several projects based at the University of Leeds Farm on how to improve soil biodiversity and resilience, using techniques including tillage, use of grass leys, introduction of mycorrhizae, and encouraging migration of soil biota from field margins. Another aspect of sustainable soil management is integrating the use of orgamic and chemical fertilisers, addressing the potential benefits for crop growth, pollution management and supported a circular economy in agriculture. I continue to work on the impacts of farming on biodivesity, and am a member of the European Food Standards Authority GMO panel. I am becoming increasingly involved in understanding how to develop more healthy and sustainable urban food systems.

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • Bsc(Hons) Imperial College
  • PhD University of East Anglia
  • C. Biol.
  • FRSB

Professional memberships

  • Member, European Food Standards Authority GMO committee
  • Member, Leeds Food Partnership

Student education