Church drops stake in genetics company

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The Independent Online
THE Church Commissioners have disposed of a pounds 1.3m shareholding in a leading genetic engineering firm after protests that the investment was incompatible with Christian values. But they will still invest in an oil company accused of employing forced labour in Burma and two other genetic-engineering firms and an arms manufacturer.

A spokesman for the commissioners said the decision to pull out of Monsanto was made purely on investment grounds, even though its shares had risen in the past two years. The company confirmed it had been asked to justify its activities after questions from MPs. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, complained that the Church's investment policy was not as ethical as it maintained. But a spokesman denied it had bowed to Mr Baker's arguments over Monsanto, an American firm. "We no longer invest in Monsanto because we have changed our investment management arrangements. It is not for ethical reasons."

Colin Merritt, technical manager for Monsanto UK, said that after Mr Baker's protest in July the company had been asked to explain its activities. Having heard it engineered soya beans and potatoes but not humans or animals, the commissioners were satisfied their investment was ethical, he said. However, the decision to divest had been made shortly afterwards on financial grounds.

"Not being a financial expert I am not sure what those reasons were. We have grown considerably in terms of share value over the last couple of years, and we are of course a growth company in the longer term," he said. Mr Baker welcomed the decision. "Investment in Monsanto is incompatible with the Christian doctrine. I am delighted the Church Commissioners have pulled out, even if they have moved in rather mysterious ways."

Despite the decision, MPs will continue to question the Church's investment policy. Yesterday the commissioners' spokesman confirmed it was keeping an investment of almost pounds 1m in Total Oil, despite a decision by the Methodists' to scrap a pounds 300,000 holding in the firm because of its involvement in Burma. Many Western companies have taken the view that it is impossible to do business there without supporting the military government. The Methodists said they were particularly concerned by reports that forced labour had been used to clear the route of a Total pipeline into Thailand. Total denies it uses forced labour.

The commissioners have promised to look into the issue.