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Environment

French NGOs hail US court’s guilty verdict in Monsanto trial

media French farmer Nicolas Denieul uses Monsanto's herbicide Roundup on his farm in Piace. AFP/Jean-François Monier

“Historic decision”, “great satisfaction”: French environmental NGOs on Saturday commended a California jury’s decision ordering chemical giant Monsanto to pay millions in damages to a former groundskeeper dying of cancer.

François Veillerette, the director of the environmental NGO Générations Futures, told AFP her group “hailed this historic decision”, as it “recognises that products containing glyphosate are carcinogenic, and holds Monsanto responsible for putting such products on the market without informing consumers”.

The vice president of Ecologie Sans Frontières had a more historical analogy. “The Berlin Wall of the environmental movement has finally fallen in the US,” Saïfi Nadir told AFP.

The reactions in France came one day after a San Francisco jury ordered US chemicals giant Monsanto pay nearly 290 million dollars to the terminally ill Dewayne Johnson. This for failing to warn the former groundskeeper that its weed killer Roundup might cause cancer.

“Justice has acted in a way that governments have not,” Greenpeace’s Suzanne Dalle told AFP, adding that “citizens across France and Europe must continue to mobilise to ensure glyphosate is banned once and for all”.

German pharma giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto for some 62 billion dollars in June, responded Saturday to the ruling by insisting their lead product Roundup was “safe”.

But Benjamin Sourice, president of the group Combat Monsanto, says Monsanto’s defence is just another example of misleading lobbying. “Pesticide lobbies have successfully deceived governments. It’s almost as if the latter tricks itself voluntarily,” he told AFP.

‘Tip of the spear’

Bayer has said it will appeal the California ruling, arguing it went against scientific evidence.

"On the basis of scientific conclusions, the views of worldwide regulatory authorities and the decades-long practical experience with glyphosate use, Bayer is convinced that glyphosate is safe and does not cause cancer," the company said in a statement.

Bayer added it will "continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective and safe tool for farmers and others."

Jurors unanimously found that Monsanto acted with "malice" and that its weed killers Roundup and the professional grade version RangerPro contributed "substantially" to Johnson's cancer.

Observers say Monsanto’s defeat may open the door to thousands of other claims against the company.

Brent Wisner, Johnson’s lawyer, called the ruling the "tip of the spear" of litigation likely to come.

But Monsanto vice president Scott Partridge said the company did not intend to settle the slew of similar cases in the legal queue, according to AFP. "The jury got it wrong," he told reporters outside the courthouse.

Johnson’s lawyers say the judgement will stand even if Johnson succumbs to his cancer during appeals.

"We will fight this to the last minute of the last day," Wisner said. "We will do everything to make sure Mr. Johnson and his family share in that award."

Unprecedented lawsuit

The lawsuit was the first to accuse glyphosate of causing cancer, according to AFP.

Johnson, a California groundskeeper diagnosed in 2014 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma -- a cancer that affects white blood cells -- said he repeatedly used RangerPro while working at a school in Benicia, California. 

The lawsuit was built on 2015 findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, which classified Roundup's main ingredient glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. The state of California then followed suit.

Johnson's lawyers showed pictures of him with skin lesions allegedly caused by the pesticide.

Monsanto accused the lawyers of selectively choosing certain studies and neglecting others. The US company also argued that non-Hodgkin lymphoma takes years to develop, and therefore must have been contracted by Johnson before he began regularly using RangerPro in 2014.

But after eight weeks of trial proceedings, the San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto pay 250 million dollars in punitive damages along with compensatory damages and other costs, bringing the total figure to nearly 290 million dollars.

Johnson appeared to fight back sobs while the verdict was read, but later wept openly -- as did some jurors -- when he met with the panel, AFP reports.

"I want to thank everybody on the jury from the bottom of my heart,” the 46-year-old father of three said after the verdict.

"I am glad to be here. The cause is way bigger than me. Hopefully this thing will get the attention it needs."

‘Cascading’ evidence

Johnson's team expressed confidence in the verdict, saying the judge in the case kept out additional evidence backing their position.

"All the efforts by Monsanto to put their finger in the dike and hold back the science -- the science is now too persuasive," said Robert F Kennedy Jr of Johnson’s legal team. The environmental lawyer, son of the late US senator, said there was "cascading" evidence about the health dangers of Roundup.

"You not only see many people injured, you see the corruption of public officials, the capture of agencies that are supposed to protect us from pollution and the falsification of science," Kennedy said.

Monsanto has denied any links between its products and ill health effects. But the chemicals giant has already suffered hits to its reputation in light of the controversy.

Records of internal company emails with regulators unsealed earlier by a federal court suggested Monsanto had ghostwritten research later attributed to academics.

Monsanto, acquired by Bayer for more than 62 billion dollars in June, launched Roundup in 1976. The company, founded in 1901 in Missouri, began producing agrochemicals in the 1940s.  

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