The French farmers fighting the deadly pesticide taboo

Last month, French cereal farmer Paul François, 47, won a lengthy legal battle against US biotech giant Monsanto in a landmark ruling by a court in Lyon that could open a floodgate of complaints by farmers for chemical poisoning. François was found to have become severely handicapped as a direct result of his contamination by Lasso, a powerful herbicide produced by Monsanto. France is Europe’s biggest user, by volume, of pesticides, and worldwide only India and the United States use more. For François and other campaigners seeking to alert farmers to the dangers of chemical-based phytosanitary products, their battle targets not only the clout of the industrial lobby and a reluctance of the medical profession to recognise the illnesses caused by pesticides, but also a silent taboo among the farming community itself. Claire Le Nestour reports.

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On April 27th 2004, Paul François, a cereal farmer from the Charente region of western France, was preparing to spread herbicide over his field of rape seed. He had not long finished spraying a corn field with Lasso, a weedkiller produced by US biotech giant Monsanto and which has been used by thousands of farmers around the world since the 1960s.

Under a hot sun, he opened the tank of his crop sprayer to clean it. François was hit in the face by a surge of vapour from the product. Hours later, he was rushed to hospital suffering from loss of consciousness and respiratory failure. Over the months that followed, he fell into comas and, when conscious, suffered severe migraine. He spent five months in hospital and was ordered to take nine months of sick leave from his job. His permanent neurological problems have now left him seriously handicapped and able only to work part-time.

Last month, François, 47, won a lengthy legal battle against Monsanto in a landmark ruling by a court in Lyon that could open a floodgate of complaints over the effects of pesticide poisoning. The February 13th verdict found Monsanto guilty of the chemical poisoning of François, the first time in France that a pesticide producer was sentenced for chemical contamination. It followed a tenacious campaign by the farmer and the association for victims of pesticide contamination that he founded and now presides, called Phyto-Victimes.

Paul François au Salon de l'agriculture © Olivier Picard - Générations Futures Paul François au Salon de l'agriculture © Olivier Picard - Générations Futures

Two weeks later, François led a group of French farmers, some of them now retired by illness, who dropped in at the major annual French agricultural fair, le salon de l’agriculture, a vast and popular show held in Paris representing many hundreds of agricultural producers from around the country, as well as industry specialists. Victims of pesticide poisoning, and dressed in T-shirst proclaiming ‘Illnesses caused by pesticides exist, I am the proof’, they headed for the stand of the Union des industries de la protection des plantes, a lobby grouping for producers of pesticide and other chemical phytosanitary products.

“We want to show to the agricultural world the devastation that pesticides have caused, and continue to cause, among the agricultural population,” proclaimed François. For his association, like others campaigning against the indiscriminate use of powerful pesticides, the obstacles they face include not only the industry’s lobbying power and the scepticism about the dangers from the medical profession, but also a weighty taboo among farmers themselves to debate the widespread use of chemicals on the land.

France is Europe’s largest agricultural producer, and is also the continent’s biggest user, by volume, of pesticides. Worldwide, only India and the United States use more. Numerous studies over recent years have testified to clear links between exposure to pesticides and the increased risk of serious health problems.

One of them, by Bordeaux University’s laboratory for health, work and environment, published in June 2007, found that regular contact with pesticides increased a farmer’s risk of developing a brain tumour twicefold. Another, published in 2010 by researchers Bertrand Nadel and Sandrine Roulland of the Marseille-Luminy Immunological Centre, found that farmers’ regular exposure to pesticides led to the creation in their bodies of between 100 and 100,000 more abnormal cells than those who weren’t, significantly increasing their risk of developing blood cancer.

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