GM crops set to make Sainsbury millions
* Sainsbury: THE BACKGROUND
* Row over Sainsbury's GM patents
GM crops set to make Sainsbury millions
Jonathan Leake and David Robertson
The Sunday Times, October 12, 2003
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. [COMMENT: Hpwever, he knows the pattern of his investements through Innotech and Diatech - see below]
Lord Sainsbury is UK Science Minister, a member of the cabinet biotechnology committee, Sci-Bio, responsible for national policy on GM crops and foods, and as such a key adviser to Blair on GM technology. He is also a multi-million-pound donor to the Labour Party, having given Labour its biggest single donation in September 1997 and over GBP11m in all. He was made a life peer by Blair on October 3 1997.
Lord Sainsbury is also a major personal investor in GM, and has long-established links to two biotech investment companies - Innotech and Diatech. Gatsby, a charity established by Sainsbury, has invested over GBP2m a year into the new Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre, which carries out research into GM crops. The laboratory also receives over GBP800,000 a year from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, for which Sainsbury is responsible in his ministerial role. Its grant has increased several fold during Sainsbury's time as minister.
The Ecologist asked Michael Meacher when he was still Environment Minister about his conflict of interest. Meacher commented that, "as far as I know the only way [Sainsbury] seeks to avoid this conflict of interest is by absenting himself committees. And as far as I know that is all he does." The Ecologist asked the minister how he thought this arrangement must seem to people in the outside world. Meacher smiled but declined to answer.
THE WIDER CONTEXT:
Row over Sainsbury's GM patents
Campaigners attack Science Minister as US documents reveal Labour peer's biotech 'goldmine'
Antony Barnett, Public Affairs Editor
The Observer, September 19, 1999
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury stands to make substantial profits from a company which now owns the rights for three biotech products integral to the future of GM food technology, The Observer can reveal. Sainsbury indirectly owns a firm, Diatech, that controls the patents based around a collection of genes taken from the tobacco plant, known as the Omega sequence. The process makes genetic modification more than 100 times more effective and scientists claim it has the potential to make millions of pounds in royalties. Documents filed at the US patent office, which have been seen by The Observer, show Diatech was granted three patents for its GM products in February 1996, March 1997 and April this year. Diatech was transferred to Sainsbury's blind trust last July after he became a Minister. This month he donated GBP2m to the Labour Party.
Earlier this year The Observer revealed how Diatech was helping to pay contractors to refurbish Sainsbury's £3 million country home. The revelations piled further pressure on Tony Blair to sack the Science Minister after MPs and environmental campaigners claimed his financial links to the GM industry made it impossible for him to act impartially and accused him of a significant conflict of interest. Adrian Bebb, director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'It is now clear that if GM technology takes off in Britain Lord Sainsbury will make so much money that even he will notice. This huge potential goldmine makes the idea of avoiding conflicts of interest through a blind trust completely ridiculous.'
Sainsbury has not declared ownership of the patents in the House of Lords' register of interests because they are technically owned by his blind trust. Before he became a Minister he simply listed in the register that he owned a 'licence on a biotechnology product'. Shadow Environment Secretary John Redwood said: 'Lord Sainsbury must give a clear and full statement of his past and present interests in the GM industry. He cannot hide behind his blind trust because if you own assets and investments that are not easily tradeable the blind trust does not offer protection. It also appears he only declared one patent in the past when he may have owned more.'
Sainsbury funded the research that led to the Omega sequence being discovered during the 1980s. His chief scientific adviser, Dr Roger Freedman, approved the payment for the work through Diatech which sponsored the research that was carried out at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Dr Michael Wilson, chief executive of Horticultural Research International [and a member of the Government's Science Review Panel] and the scientist who discovered the sequence, said: 'The unique thing is that it can be used in virtually all GM processes. Put simply, it dramatically boosts the levels of protein produced in GM plants which is necessary to make the gene function. This could be very useful in GM foods as well as in developing medicines.' A researcher at the Scottish Crop Research Institute who worked with Wilson said: 'The view was that the Omega sequence could be a huge commercial success in the future with companies like Monsanto licensing it for use in their products.' The Observer has also established that under Sainsbury's ownership Diatech struck a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US to jointly market the patent of another translational enhancer taken from the alfalfa plant.
Diatech refused to reveal who was paying for its products, although it is understood that genetically modified papayas being grown in Hawaii are paying royalties to the firm. Earlier this year the Japanese signed a deal with Hawaiian papaya growers to import GM fruit. Such a deal could be highly profitable for Diatech and Sainsbury.
In February, Sainsbury angrily dismissed claims he owned the patent to the cauliflower mosaic virus. He refused to comment, but a spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said the Minister had no idea what he did or did not own in his blind trust and that, in any case, he was not involved in policy decisions relating to GM foods. However, earlier this year Sainsbury travelled to the US with members of the the Bio-Industry Association to investigate biotechnology clusters. The association is viewed by campaigners as a lobby group for the GM industry and Diatech is a member. The DTI helped fund the trip.