The Trade and Industry minister, who has large interests in biotechnology companies and who has denied taking part in official discussions on policy over genetically modified (GM) food, immediately incurred fresh pressure to resign.
During the trip last September, the minister visited the Institute of Plant Physiology in Shanghai and witnessed an accord between the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and its counterpart in Korea. The research council is organising a follow-up trip which will receive sponsorship from the Foreign Office.
The revelation came at the end of a week in which Lord Sainsbury faced almost daily revelations about his links with the biotechnology industry. He has said he will stand aside from policy decisions but he does sit on a cabinet subcommittee on the issue. His shares in the industry are being held in trust.
Lord Sainsbury has been a long-term enthusiast for the genetic modification of plants, and has funded research on the subject. He also owns companies which hope to exploit the technology commercially.
His charity, the Gatsby Foundation, funds the transfer of biotechnology to developing countries, along with the BBSRC and other bodies.
The chief executive of the BBSRC, Rob Baker, accompanied the minister to the Far East and described the trip in the council's newsletter. "The ministerial discussions were an important milestone in UK links with [South] Korea ... During the visit I signed an agreement with the Korean Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology to encourage collaborative links. Biotechnology was an important feature of the ministerial meeting," he wrote.
Both Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the Tory trade and industry spokesman, John Redwood, who have formed an unusual alliance on the issue, condemned Lord Sainsbury's involvement in the trip.
Charles Secrett, executive director of FoE, said full details of the trip should be revealed. "In particular, we need to know whether and when GM food and crops were discussed. Did Lord Sainsbury run out the door whenever the subject came up? The visit may be further evidence of an apparent conflict of interest."
Mr Redwood said the minister was in "a ridiculously embarrassing position". "I remember being told that Lord Sainsbury took no part in discussions on GM food. Now we see that he went, at the taxpayers' expense, to China to promote and discuss biotechnology. How could he have avoided discussing GM food on such a trip?" he asked.
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said there was no conflict of interest. The trip was to promote all types of science. "When it comes to making policy decisions which have a bearing on his interests, then that is when he feels the need to stand aside. That has only happened once, on 3 February, at the biotechnology cross- departmental meeting. There is absolutely nothing which conflicts with Lord Sainsbury's stance on this," he said.
n The Government took to the Internet last night to try to quell the storm over GM foods. It posted replies on Downing Street's website to recent newspaper stories, contrasting what it said was each allegation with the "fact" of the matter.Reuse content