In a landmark ruling for global efforts to curb the use of chemicals in agriculture, the US bio-tech firm Monsanto has been found guilty of "poisoning" a French farmer.
A court in Lyon decided the agro-business multinational had ruined the health of Paul François, 47, a cereal farmer from western France who accidentally inhaled fumes from its Lasso weed-killer in 2004.
Monsanto, a dominant player in the global agriculture industry, now faces a multi-million euro compensation ruling later this year. The company, which claimed the farmer ignored safety procedures, says it will appeal.
The judgment, following a long, legal struggle by Mr François, was hailed as a landmark breakthrough by campaigners against the systematic farm use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. "It is a historic decision in so far as it is the first time that a (herbicide) maker is found guilty of such a poisoning," Mr François' lawyer, Maître Francois Lafforgue, said.
"This will give encouragement to a lot of other people," Stéphane Cottineau, a lawyer specialising in environmental causes, said. "It will now be possible to sue manufacturers whenever there is a clear link between illness and a specific chemical product."
Lasso, first used in the 1960s to suppress weeds in cereal fields, has been banned in Canada and the UK since the 1980s. It was finally banned in France in 2007 following a EU directive.
Mr François accidentally inhaled fumes from a Lasso sprayer in April 2004 and was forced to give up his farm in Charente, western France, after suffering neurological and muscular problems, including fainting fits, memory-loss, headaches and stammering.
One year after the accident, his body was found to contain significant traces of monochlorobenzene, a toxic component of Lasso not mentioned on its principal label or packaging. The Lyon court ruled that Monsanto was negligent because it failed to warn users of the precise contents of Lasso or give adequate warnings about the dangers of inhalation.
Mr François said: "People who were used to fobbing people off with reassuring arguments can now be prosecuted if their products are found to be dangerous for people or the environment."
The multi-national plans to appeal. "Monsanto always considered that there were not sufficient elements to establish a causal relationship between Paul François' symptoms and a potential poisoning," its lawyer, Jean-Philippe Delsart, said. A company spokesman said that herbicides were, by their nature, dangerous and safety instructions must always be followed.
The court ruling was hailed by campaigners for traditional or organic agriculture as a slap in the face for successive French governments and the pro-chemical attitude of the dominant farming unions.
French rivers are among the worst polluted by residues of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers in Europe.
The veteran French campaigner for traditional farming, José Bové, said the fact that Lasso had remained legal in France until 2007 was a disgrace. "It shows that we need to re-examine our rules for herbicide use," he said. "The authorities dragged their feet [on Lasso] despite the internationally recognised dangers."