* Case against Monsanto 1st such claim to reach French court
* Monsanto lawyer says "disappointed", envisages appeal
* Pesticide makers see no evidence of major health risk
By Catherine Lagrange and Marion Douet
LYON/PARIS, Feb 13 (Reuters) - A French court on
Monday declared U.S. biotech giant Monsanto guilty of
chemical poisoning of a French farmer, a judgment that could
lend weight to other health claims against pesticides.
In the first such case heard in court in France, grain
grower Paul Francois, 47, says he suffered neurological problems
including memory loss, headaches and stammering after inhaling
Monsanto's Lasso weedkiller in 2004.
He blames the agri-business giant for not providing adequate
warnings on the product label.
The ruling was given by a court in Lyon, southeast France,
which ordered an expert opinion of Francois's losses to
establish the amount of damages.
"It is a historic decision in so far as it is the first time
that a (pesticide) maker is found guilty of such a poisoning,"
François Lafforgue, Francois's lawyer, told Reuters.
Monsanto said it was disappointed by the ruling and would
examine whether to appeal the judgment.
"Monsanto always considered that there were not sufficient
elements to establish a causal relationship between Paul
Francois's symptoms and a potential poisoning," the company's
lawyer, Jean-Philippe Delsart, said.
Previous health claims from farmers have foundered because
of the difficulty of establishing clear links between illnesses
and exposure to pesticides.
Francois and other farmers suffering from illness set up an
association last year to make a case that their health problems
should be linked to their use of crop protection products.
The agricultural branch of the French social security system
says that since 1996, it has gathered farmers' reports of
sickness potentially related to pesticides, with about 200
alerts a year.
But only about 47 cases have been recognised as due to
pesticides in the past 10 years. Francois, who suffers from
neurological problems, obtained work invalidity status only
after a court appeal.
LESS INTENSIVE NOW
The Francois case goes back to a period of intensive use of
crop-protection chemicals in the European Union. The EU and its
member countries have since banned a large number of substances
Lasso, a pre-emergent soil-applied herbicide that has been
used since the 1960s to control grasses and broadleaf weeds in
farm fields, was banned in France in 2007 following an EU
directive after the product had already been withdrawn in some
Though it once was a top-selling herbicide, it has gradually
lost popularity, and critics say several studies have shown
links to a range of health problems.
Monsanto's Roundup is now the dominant herbicide used to
kill weeds. The company markets it in conjunction with its
biotech herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" crops. The Roundup
Ready corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops do not die when
sprayed directly with the herbicide, a trait that has made them
wildly popular with U.S. farmers.
But farmers are now being encouraged to use more and
different kinds of chemicals again as Roundup loses its
effectiveness to a rise of "super weeds" that are resistant to
And while the risks of pesticide are a generally known and
accepted hazard of farming in most places, and farmers are
cautioned to take care when handling the chemicals, increased
use of pesticides will only cause more harm to human health and
the environment, critic say.
"The registration process does not protect against harm.
Manufacturers have to be held liable for adverse impacts that
occur," said Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, a
non-profit group focused on reducing pesticide use.
France, the EU's largest agricultural producer, is now
targetting a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use between 2008
and 2018, with initial results showing a 4 percent cut in farm
and non-farm use in 2008-2010.
The Francois claim may be easier to argue than others
because he can pinpoint a specific incident - inhaling the Lasso
when cleaning the tank of his crop sprayer - whereas fellow
farmers are trying to show accumulated effects from various
"It's like lying on a bed of thorns and trying to say which
one cut you," said a farmer, who has recovered from prostate
cancer and asked not to be named.
The French association of crop protection companies, UIPP,
says pesticides are all subject to testing and that any evidence
of a cancer risk in humans leads to withdrawal of products from
"I think if we had a major health problem with pesticides,
we would have already known about it," Jean-Charles Bocquet,
UIPP's managing director, said.
The social security's farming branch this year is due to add
Parkinson's disease to its list of conditions related to
pesticide use after already recognising some cases of blood
cancers and bladder and respiratory problems.
France's health and environment safety agency (ANSES),
meanwhile, is conducting a study on farmers' health, with
results expected next year.