By Marion Douet
PARIS (Reuters) - A legal battle pitching a French farmer against the world's largest seed company could lend weight to health claims against pesticides if a court finds on Monday that Monsanto was at fault in a case of chemical poisoning.
In the first such case to be heard in court in France, grain grower Paul Francois says he suffered neurological problems including memory loss, headaches and stammering after inhaling Monsanto's Lasso weedkiller in 2004.
He blames the agri-business giant for not providing adequate warnings on the product label.
A court in Lyon, southeast France, is due to give a verdict on the case later in the day.
Previous health claims from farmers have foundered because of the difficulty of establishing clear links between illnesses and exposure to pesticides.
"I am alive today, but part of the farming population is going to be sacrificed and is going to die because of this," Francois, 47, told Reuters.
He and other farmers suffering from illness set up an association last year to make a case that their health problems should be linked to their use of crop protection products.
The agricultural branch of the French social security system says that since 1996, it has gathered farmers' reports of sickness potentially related to pesticides, with about 200 alerts a year.
But only about 47 cases have been recognized as due to pesticides in the past 10 years. Francois, who suffers from neurological problems, obtained work invalidity status only after a court appeal.
Monsanto did not return calls on the subject, while its lawyer in the French court case declined to comment ahead of Monday's ruling.
LESS INTENSIVE NOW
The Francois case goes back to a period of intensive use of crop-protection chemicals in the European Union. The EU and its member countries have since banned a large number of substances considered dangerous.
Monsanto's Lasso was banned in France in 2007 following an EU directive after the product had already been withdrawn in some other countries.
France, the EU's largest agricultural producer, is now targeting a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018, with initial results showing a 4 percent cut in farm and non-farm use in 2008-2010.
The Francois claim may be easier to argue than others because he can pinpoint a specific incident - inhaling the Lasso when cleaning the tank of his crop sprayer - whereas fellow farmers are trying to show accumulated effects from various products.
"It's like lying on a bed of thorns and trying to say which one cut you," said a farmer, who has recovered from prostate cancer and asked not to be named.
The French association of crop protection companies, UIPP, says pesticides are all subject to testing and that any evidence of a cancer risk in humans leads to withdrawal of products from the market.
"I think if we had a major health problem with pesticides, we would have already known about it," Jean-Charles Bocquet, UIPP's managing director, said.
The social security's farming branch this year is due to add Parkinson's disease to its list of conditions related to pesticide use after already recognizing some cases of blood cancers and bladder and respiratory problems.
France's health and environment safety agency (ANSES), meanwhile, is conducting a study on farmers' health, with results expected next year.
(Writing by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Muriel Boselli and Jane Baird)