If you sell you something that makes you terribly sick, who is to blame?
Seems like an obvious question, right? Especially if you are applying chemicals that are designed to kill living organisms.
The thing is, it’s often a very hard thing to prove, especially when it comes to illnesses linked to toxic chemicals and pesticides exposure. U.S. agri-giant Monsanto has relied upon this absence of causal scientific linkage–the proverbial “smoking gun”–to maintain its lack of culpability when people get sick from their products.
Until today. A French judge has found Monsanto directly culpable and responsible for a farmer’s illness after exposure to one of the company’s pesticides.
Monsanto found guilty of chemical poisoning in France
French farmer Paul Francois says he suffered neurological problems after inhaling Monsanto’s Lasso weedkiller
A French court has declared the US 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, the grain grower Paul Francois, 47, said he suffered neurological problems including memory loss, headaches and stammering after inhaling Monsanto’s Lasso weedkiller in 2004.
He blames Monsanto for not providing adequate warnings on the product label.
The ruling was given by a court in Lyon, south-east 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,” Francois Lafforgue, Francois’s lawyer, told Reuters.
Monsanto said it was disappointed by the ruling and would examine whether to appeal against 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.
This “burden of proof” is a really interesting element to the whole discussion of causing harm and assigning responsibility. United States law has traditionally flowed from a risk assessment strategy that favors trade and enterprise over public and environmental safety. Weigh the outcomes, then proceed. Assume the best, deal with the rest.
In contrast, European Union law rests upon a a precautionary mindset. If you want to sell it, you have to prove that it’s not harmful before you proceed.
The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
The problem, of course, with betting on things being OK is that they are–until they’re not. Once illness strikes or a watershed is bespoiled, we all suffer the consequences. There’s no unringing the bell. No matter who was to blame in the right place. That’s good enough reason to stop throwing dice with our health and our environment.