By Boyd Champness

THE Howard Government in Australia has delayed a decision about signing an international environmental treaty over fears that it could lead to artificial trade barriers.

The Governments decision follows a wave of concern from the farm lobby and the governments own backbench about the prospects of “backdoor” protectionism in world farm trade.

According to an article in The Weekly Times, Prime Minister John Howard agrees that federal Liberal MPs must be consulted before the Government signs any future treaties.

At the centre of concern is the United Nations-sponsored Biosafety Protocol, which requires genetically modified foods to be labelled and allows countries to use the “precautionary principal” to block the import of GMOs even where there is no scientific basis for concern.

The National Farmers Federation and other critics believe this will undermine world trade rules, which require quarantine rules to be backed by rigorous science.

They also believe it will provide protectionist countries such as Japan, Korea and the European Union with yet another vehicle to prohibit free trade.

The protocol, which was agreed earlier this year by a large number of UN countries including Australia, was opened for signature last week.

Early indications were that Australia would sign.

Environment minister Senator Robert Hill offered strong support and agriculture minister Warren Truss grudgingly conceded it might be necessary to boost confidence in GM products among overseas consumers.

But a spokesman for trade minister Mark Vaile told the newspaper that the Government now acknowledged there was “a lot of concern out there among a whole range of people” about the protocol.

“We wont be signing it until theres been wide consultations. And that could take a while,” the spokesman said.

Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Liberal backbencher Andrew Thomson, warned recently that the EU and green groups were pushing for a wider adoption of the “precautionary principal”.

He said what appears to be an “innocent” piece of environmental policy could easily be used to inflict terrible damage on Australian trade.