GM crops set to make Sainsbury millions

THE science minister Lord Sainsbury could make millions of pounds from his investments in firms researching genetically modified (GM) crops, including one company closely associated with Monsanto, the controversial American biotechnology company.

As the government prepares this week to announce the results of its GM crop trials in Britain, an analysis of the billionaire minister’s holdings shows that Innotech, one of his companies, has a 12.4% stake in a US firm called Paradigm Genetics. Paradigm is involved in a joint venture with Monsanto to develop novel genes that could be used to modify the DNA of crop plants.

Such crops could earn biotechnology companies millions of pounds in extra profit if the farm trials show that they can be grown safely in Europe.

There is no suggestion that Sainsbury has acted improperly. All his commercial interests, including those in biotechnology, were placed in a blind trust soon after he became a minister so that he has no influence over or knowledge of them.

However, some senior Labour party colleagues are uneasy. This weekend Ian Gibson, the chairman of the Commons select committee for science and technology, said it was wrong for ministers to retain investments in areas where they were also influencing policy.

“Lord Sainsbury is the science minister and is influential in forming the government’s policy on GM crops, but he is also known as a biotechnology evangelist,” said Gibson. “It would be wise of him to remove any financial attachment to that industry and ensure he has a visibly clean pair of hands.”

Sainsbury maintains that he absents himself from government meetings on GM and plays no formal role in making policy. However, despite the public’s scepticism, Sainsbury and Tony Blair have indicated their strong support for such technologies.

Sainsbury’s blind trust contains shares from a number of companies, including Innotech Investments, as well as his 13% stake in the J Sainsbury supermarket chain. According to the company’s latest available report and accounts, the value of Innotech’s total investments grew from £56.2m in 2000 to £87.5m in 2001.

Between February 1998 and March 1999 Innotech was part of a consortium reported to have invested £8m in Paradigm Genetics. Paradigm would not divulge the value of Innotech’s original stake but sources said it was now worth about £3m.

In corporate documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Paradigm describes its activities as seeking genes that will add valuable traits to common crops.

In November 1999 Paradigm signed a deal with Monsanto, which is paying it £30m and up to £9m more in performance bonuses, to work on novel genes. Paradigm will also get royalties if any of the genes are used in commercial products. It is royalties that offer the biggest chance of high returns.

This year Monsanto confirmed it was adding some genes discovered by Paradigm to its next generation of commercial crops. If such crops are approved in Europe, Paradigm genes could soon be in food sold in British supermarkets.

Heinrich Gugger, Paradigm’s chief executive, said in May: “The potential for the commercial value of our research has clearly increased. This opens new doors in our relationship with Monsanto.”

Sainsbury’s investment in biotechnology is, however, unlikely to make a substantial difference to his wealth, which is mostly inherited. The family controls 38% of the shares in the J Sainsbury supermarket chain, making it worth about £2 billion. His annual income is estimated at well over £30m.

Sainsbury has donated £11.5m to Labour since joining the party in the mid-1990s. Some MPs were angry when the unelected peer was given his ministerial job over their heads. However, he has since won widespread admiration from Britain’s research community for his commitment to science.

The results of the farm trials may be a mixed blessing for investors when they are released on Thursday.

Companies behind GM technology such as Monsanto have claimed that the crops do no harm to the environment and may even benefit wildlife. But when British researchers examined the literature they found nothing to substantiate the claim. The study results are expected to show that while some crops may bring benefits to wildlife, others are damaging. Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, claimed last night that the trials of GM crops were invalid. The government “could not responsibly license GM crops” for commercial production, he said, because the European Union last week banned atrazine, one of the key weedkillers in the trial.

Atrazine is suspected of causing cancer. It has been used in the tests to compare effects on conventional and GM maize. The ban means it cannot be used if GM maize is approved for wider use. Meacher argues this renders the tests worthless.