By Boyd Champness

SECRET trials of GM crops could be banned under tough new laws on gene technology on the cards for Australia.

The new laws will be a government attempt to restore public confidence in GM foods.

The move follows allegations that Biotech giant Aventis dumped GM canola at a commercial rubbish tip near the South Australian town of Mount Gambier. Aventis denies the allegations.

This latest scare, coupled with the fact that many of Australias key overseas markets have expressed concern over the safety of GM products, has forced the Government to take a stand.

The Government has also indicated that it will sign a new international treaty, the Biodiversity Protocol, in a bid to placate overseas consumers, despite grave concerns that the protocol could be used as a form of trade barrier.

According to The Weekly Times, a new Gene Technology Regulator will have sweeping independent powers, including the ability to impose fines of up to A$1.2 million (450,000) for breaches of the new laws.

The regulator must regulate all aspects of the development and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the newspaper said.

It will operate free from government direction, although it will take submissions from government and community agencies when making decisions.

Science companies conducting field trials will no longer be able to keep their locations secret unless they can demonstrate a strong commercial case for doing so.

“It sounds like the ultimate Big Brother,” prominent Victorian Liberal backbencher Fran Bailey told The Weekly Times.

Federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss told the newspaper that the GM industry must accept the tough new regulations if it is to win consumers over to the new technology.

“The GMO scientific industry is going to have to accept a range of constraints that may stifle to some extent their initiative and their capabilities because of the need to assure the public that everything theyre doing is fair and safe and reasonable,” he said.

Mr Truss said international support for the Biodiversity Protocol meant that Australia could isolate itself by not signing, however, he said the Government feared it could lead to artificial trade barriers.

Under the protocol, countries will be allowed to block the import of GMOs even where there is no scientific basis for concerns.

“In an ideal situation, we would have preferred not to have gone that way,” Mr Truss told the newspaper.

“But the debate has reached such momentum internationally that it is an essential element in building public confidence.”

He said there had been a tremendous shift in public opinion towards GM foods in the past year with American consumers joining their European and Japanese counterparts in questioning the safety of such foods.

The United Nations-sponsored protocol is open for signature next month and needs the support of 50 nations to come into force.