Church invests in gene science

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The Independent Online
The Church Commissioners have invested more than pounds 1m in a company which is at the leading edge of genetic engineering. The American corporation Monsanto was also one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, the defoliant which caused devastation during the Vietnam war.

Among the Church Commissioners' other investments last year was pounds 14m in GEC, Britain's second largest arms producer. They also put pounds 1.2m into Nestle, which has been criticised for alleged breaches of the code on advertising baby milk in developing countries.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who received the information in a Commons written answer, said the investment policy seemed inconsistent with the tenets of Christianity.

"The Church Commissioners have to examine their consciences quite deeply. God may move in mysterious ways, but I would question whether it should be in this direction," he said. Among other things, Monsanto has developed insect- repellent potatoes and a soya bean which does not die when it is sprayed with weedkiller. Mr Baker believes the commissioners should consider ending the connection.

The Church Commissioners' investments have long been the subject of controversy. During the Eighties they lost at least pounds 500m in a series of disastrous property investments. In the early Nineties they were taken to court by a Bishop and an Archdeacon over their links with companies which dealt with apartheid South Africa.

The commissioners have had an ethical investment policy since 1948 and do not put money into companies whose main business conflicts with the beliefs of the church. However, there have been questions about whether they should put money into firms whose subsidiary interests might not fit in with Christian values.

Ann Clywd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, has questioned the GEC investment. "The Church Commissioners say they do not invest in companies that deal mainly in arms," she said. "GEC is now the second largest producer of arms in this country and it is expanding its production. What is the cut- off point? What is the precise meaning of 'mainly'?"

Dr Colin Merritt, technical manager for Monsanto UK, said the firm was one of seven which had been "commandeered" by the US government to make Agent Orange. The chemical had never been used again after Vietnam.

Genetic engineering had been going on in one form or another for hundreds of years, since monks first began cross-breeding plants. "This is really humanity using God-given talent for the benefit of mankind. You will always find two sides to an ethical debate and we have to look constantly at what the ethical considerations are," he said.

A spokesman for the Church Commissioners said they were investigating the issues raised by Mr Baker, but defended the link. "Monsanto is not a biotechnology company, it is a chemicals and agricultural products company. It is not therefore involved in human genetic engineering. The church obviously has deep concerns about those areas and is still looking into its position on them," he said.

GEC had a wide variety of interests, he added, and most of its arms were sold to the British forces or to friendly nations.

"We do not have a problem with defence of the Realm," he said.