Monsanto to appeal guilty verdict in landmark trial

Monsanto, the US biotech giant, says it is appealing a decision by a French court that found it guilty of poisoning a farmer in a case activists hope will have repercussions beyond France.


The US-based biotechnology giant Monsanto suffered a setback this week when a judge in the French city of Lyon found the company guilty of chemically poisoning a farmer. It was the first ruling of its kind against a pesticide maker in France, and agriculture activists were hoping its impact would be global.

Grain grower Paul François, 47, said he suffered neurological problems including memory loss, headaches, stammering and muscular aches after inhaling Monsanto's Lasso weed killer in 2004. The ailments rendered him unable to work for a year, and the court ordered an expert opinion of his losses to establish the amount of damages.

The prosecution accused Monsanto of not providing adequate warnings on the product label and of failing to pull Lasso from the French market until 2007, despite earlier bans in Canada, Britain and Belgium. The biotech firm argued that its herbicide was considered safe by France for 40 years, and that it was successfully used by corn farmers on millions of acres across the globe.

Monsanto said there was not enough proof to establish a causal relationship between François’s symptoms and a potential poisoning. In a statement on its website on Wednesday the company announced it disagreed with the claim that harm could have been caused accidentally by Lasso and that Monsanto had allowed injuries to occur. “We are disappointed by the court’s decision and will therefore file an appeal,” it said.

Dangerous jobs

Previous claims from farmers had ended in failure because of the difficulty of establishing direct links between illnesses and their handling of crop-protection products. François and other farmers established an organisation in 2011 to make the case that their health problems were caused by pesticides.

According to Tim Lang, a professor of Food Policy at London's City University, legal cases similar to the French suit against Monsanto crop up in Europe all the time, but with few positive outcomes for plaintiffs. “Illnesses are frequently blamed on the farmer or worker for not following regulations,” Lang explained.

“Agriculture is consistently one of the most dangerous fields to work in,” the professor added, lamenting that lawmakers and the public in general did not give the industry’s safety standards the kind of attention they deserved.

France, Europe’s largest agricultural producer, is making an effort to scale back pesticide use by 50 percent between 2008 and 2018, in line with EU directives. In addition, France's health and environment safety agency is conducting a study on farmers' health, with results expected next year, the Reuters news agency reported.

Development divide

While the case in France was unwelcome news for Monsanto – whose business spans the myriad of activities related to food production – the biotech giant is accustomed to legal battles. Its wrangling in courtrooms began in the early 1970s and has included several high profile lawsuits as both a defendant and a plaintiff.

In the 1970s it was sued by US Vietnam War veterans for the side effects of its infamous defoliant Agent Orange. In the 1980s it was a defendant in one of the longest civil-jury trials in US history, in which plaintiffs claimed they were poisoned during a Missouri chemical spill. Most recently, the company was in court in New York after a group representing over 300,000 members challenged the firm’s patents on genetically modified seed.

According to Monsanto’s website, the company has also filed 145 suits against farmers in the US since 1997. Those cases involve instances where the company believed farmers committed patent infringement by saving seed from one season's crop to plant the next. The company sustains that its products invaluably contribute to ensuring food security around the world.

The vast majority of the company’s legal battles are limited to the US and other industrialized countries, but activists in the developing world were also looking on with interest as the latest trial unfolded in France. The website for the Pirate Party in Argentina relayed the news of the court’s decision and lamented that similar legal action was not being launched by the government in the South American country, one of the world's biggest grain exporters.

Mariam Mayet, director of the Johannesburg-based African Centre for Biodiversity, said she was very interested in the precedent established by the French court, even if it was more symbolic than legal. “Monsanto has been very arrogant about plaintiffs’ ability to prove a direct link between the herbicide and the harm suffered. The French court has said we can find a direct link,” she told FRANCE 24.

Mayet said groups representing farmers in South Africa were still a long way from being able to stand up to Monsanto in court, but she was hopeful things would eventually change: “I hope the ruling will inspire South Africans to hold not just Monsanto but all agri-businesses accountable for their actions – and not only in relation to weed killers.”

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