French winegrowers warned over pesticide use
A French winegrower, who died after contracting leukaemia becoming the first farmer to have his illness officially linked to the pesticides he used for years on his crops, has spoken from beyond the grave giving a warning to the industry.
Yannick Chenet, 43, had cultivated vineyards and other crops for decades at his farm in Ruffec, in the Poitou-Charentes region of southwestern France.
His death has served to highlight the dangers of working on the vineyards.
He is among 40 or so farmers in France whose illnesses have now been officially linked to their profession and the pesticides they have sprayed on the land by the French agricultural public health body.
Speaking shortly before his death, Mr Chenet said: "When I got the hospital I saw the same company whose name was on the pill box (as the one that made the farming products). I said: 'It can't be true; the same group that poisoned me is now treating me."
Paul François, 47, a farmer and Mr Chenet's close friend also suffers from severe health problems recognised as being linked to the products he used.
In April 2004, he inadvertently breathed in noxious fumes from his agricultural spraying machine without a mask on. Immediately admitted to hospital, he fell into a coma. Since then his illness continues to affect his kidneys and nervous system and he has again fallen into comas on several occasions.
He has since launched legal action against Monsanto, the company that produced Lasso, the pesticide he breathed in and that was taken off the market in 2007. The case is due in court next month.
"It was difficult to admit that this profession that (Yannick) started working at 14 or 15 years old, his passion, was what poisoned him. It was very painful," he said.
"I am sure that while Yannick is officially the first person to die from pesticide poisoning, there were many deaths before him, because the link wasn't made or people didn't want to make it.
"The effects of many of these products take up to 20 years to show. I'm afraid that Yannick is the first of a long list (of deaths related to pesticides)."
Mr François said much of the responsibility lies with the farmers themselves. More needed to speak out and more had to opt for the use of safer pesticides or adopt practical ways of using fewer pesticides without losing profitability.
"Today one must accept that we made mistakes and need to change. That's happening in French farming but we need to deal with the past and its victims," he said.
While no specific product has been singled out by the French agricultural public health body, they suspect benzene, a chemical frequently used as a solvent or thinner by farmers played a part in Mr Chenet contracting blood cancer.
Other farmers have had Parkinson's disease and other cancers recognised as being linked to the products, and a victims' association is being set up.
More than a quarter of the roughly 220,000 tons of pesticide used in Europe per year is sprayed on to French soil – some 65,000 tons – and a fifth of that amount goes onto French vineyards, despite the fact these only account for five per cent of the country's total crop surface.
IUPP, the French group that represents 19 companies who market crop protection products in France, said that pesticides on the market are "systematically the subject of tests and it is imperative to respect safety precautions on (product) labels."
Xavier Beulin, head of France's main farmer's union, FNSEA, said there was a "lack of serious statistics on the subject", that only officially recognised molecules and active ingredients were on the market, and that it was setting up an awareness campaign on potential risks.