Lord Sainsbury to head biotech team

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The Independent Online
LORD SAINSBURYof Turville, the minister at the centre of the recent controversy over genetically modified food, is to head a government team to promote GM food companies, The Independent has learnt.

The Science minister will be joined by representatives of food and medical biotechnology companies, whose names have not yet been made public.

The initiative aims to boost "clusters" of biotechnology companies that have sprung up in Oxford, Cambridge and Dundee.

Lord Sainsbury has major interests in companies developing the technology for GM foods. These interests are now in a blind trust and he has promised not to get involved in policy-making on GM food. But he has already been criticised for leading a biotechnology trade mission to Korea and for sitting on a cabinet sub-committee dealing with the issue.

News of the initiative drew an angry reaction from environmental campaigners, including the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, MP for Lewes.

Mr Baker said the Government had given assurances that Lord Sainsbury would not be involved in decisions or discussions on the subject. "Either he is involved and we have been lied to, or he is a lame-duck chairman because he can't talk about these things. He should be replaced," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry said the group would only deal "very remotely" with GM food issues. "The policy issues here are about promoting industry within the cluster arrangement. It isn't about promoting GM foods," she said.

The group is to visit Cambridge, Oxford, Scotland and two US-based biotechnology clusters. It will also hold brainstorming meetings with industry, planning authorities, science park managers and universities. Officials from the Department of Trade and Industry will make information- gathering visits, and the team will publish a report.

Among the companies in the Cambridge biotechnology cluster is Axis Genetics, which is developing vaccines from plants. Its chief executive, Iain Cubitt, sat on the board of the Sainsbury Laboratory, which is financed by the Science minister's charity, the Gatsby Foundation.

Other firms that could be involved include Plant Breeding International in Cambridge, which runs a number of test sites for GM crops, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee.

The Science minister has been looking increasingly embattled as revelations about his role appear to contradict his statements on the issue. Lord Sainsbury, whose shareholding in the supermarket is in a blind trust, has also taken charge of another government consultation to which the issue of GM food and crops is central.

The Government has asked the pollsters Mori to run a series of focus groups to canvas public opinion on GM crops, genetic testing and cloning.

Lord Sainsbury chaired a conference on the consultation in December and took part in a discussion on it in a cabinet committee earlier this month.