EXTRACT: 'I was involved in the GM crops issue and although we did some science it struck me that we were doing it too late and that we should have identified it as a possible problem before the products came on the market.'
Scientists devise list of potential threats to UK
By Paul Eccleston
The Telegraph, 20 March 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2008/03/20/eabio120.xml
Scientists have drawn up a list of 25 technological advances and environmental changes which pose a potential threat to the UK.
They include the use of artificially created life, the building of microscopic robots through nanotechnology, the use of biofuels and the arrival of invasive species.
Although their impact is uncertain and some will turn out to be irrelevant, some may become the keys issues of the future.
A new study led by Prof Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University calls for scientists to 'scan the horizon' so keys issues can be studied and assessed and the right environmental policies put in place.
Outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, avian influenza and climate change were examples of controversial events which should have been foreseen.
'We are not scare mongering or trying to frighten people because we are saying that these issues may also present opportunities which will bring great benefits,' said Prof Sutherland.
'I was involved in the GM crops issue and although we did some science it struck me that we were doing it too late and that we should have identified it as a possible problem before the products came on the market.'
The list was drawn up after a meeting at Cambridge of academics, government representatives and environmental organisations and followed an earlier conference to identify the 100 ecological questions that most needed answering.
It includes the use of nanotechnology - the ability to manipulate matter at scales of billionths of a metre - to build tiny robots, which led to a call by the Prince of Wales for an investigation into the possible consequences of their use.
The new study, in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, says that although there are expected to be social benefits for medicine, electronics and the environment there was also a need to predict their impact on the environment.
There was also the possibility that artificially created life - engineered organisms and synthetic microbes - could be released into the environment with unpredictable effects.
Climate change could bring about the spread of damaging non-native species currently kept out by winter temperatures damaging our biodiversity and leading to the establishment of invasive communities.
The use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels also had implications for the environment which needed to be studied.
'There may be no environmental consequences at all but we should be identifying these issues so we can start talking about them,' said Prof Sutherland.