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28 Jul, 2021 14:32

French data regulator hits Monsanto with $472,000 fine for illegally compiling watch list to secure support during weed killer row

French data regulator hits Monsanto with $472,000 fine for illegally compiling watch list to secure support during weed killer row

France’s data protection regulator has fined agricultural firm Monsanto €400,000 ($472,320) for illegally creating lists to help the company lobby support during a debate about the authorization of a key weed killer ingredient.

The case was launched by the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) after seven plaintiffs complained about Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer, compiling files on individuals who were involved in the public debate about the use of controversial weed killer glyphosate.

While the lists themselves were not deemed illegal, Monsanto fell foul of the data regulator by keeping the files secret and failing to inform individuals that their information was gathered, giving them the right to refuse to be included.

The French list of more than 200 people gave each individual a rating of one to five, marking influence, credibility and their level of support for the agricultural firm, specifically its pesticide and crop modification practices.

Siding with the plaintiffs, the CNIL fined Monsanto €400,000 over its data collection system and failure to provide individuals with the right to request their data be removed or not collected.

After Monsanto was acquired by Bayer in 2019, the German firm launched an internal investigation that found around 1,500 people had been targeted globally, “primarily within the EU,” but argued that there was no evidence anyone was illegally surveilled. 

The watch lists were created during a heated debate in the EU over the use of weedkiller Roundup amid lawsuits that claimed it has the potential to cause cancer. Monsanto has repeatedly claimed that Roundup and its main ingredient glyphosate is safe, denying there is any wrongdoing or cause for concern. 

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The EU ultimately renewed the right to use glyphosate for a further five years in 2018 despite the US ordering Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages as part of a settlement over claims it causes cancer. The EU’s decision to stand by the use of the weedkiller means that it will be 2022, at the earliest, before the ingredient could be banned permanently from the continent.

While the lists were initially created to help lobby support during the debate across the EU, Monsanto continued collecting information and growing files on key figures until 2019, according to the CNIL, when media reports exposed the firm’s practices. However, despite the CNIL’s condemnation of the data collection, the regulator accepted that the information was not used to engage in any illegal lobbying, according to a statement from a Bayer spokesperson.

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