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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Good for the environment, after all

After 13 years, everybody sensible now knows the GM crops were good for human beings and the environment too. But admitting it is hard.

The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:

Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (www.isaaa.org), 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...

This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...

How this situation will evolve is anyone's guess, but Europe cannot pretend to be a GM-free island. The livestock industry relies heavily on imports of GM soy to provide affordable meat, significant quantities of GM maize are grown in Spain, and the products of GM micro-organisms are widely used in food processing. Now that the question of food security and affordability has finally come back to the top of the agenda, there should be a greater sense of realism among politicians that a utopian vision of localised organic farming is a mirage except for a privileged few who can afford to indulge themselves.