Saturday, May 15, 2010

BP and Lax Regulations

As if the Gulf Oil spill pouring from Beyond (British) Petroleum’s drilling rig weren’t bad enough, it’s beginning to appear that, as in the financial meltdown, the culprit was lax regulations. Democracy Now featured a segment on May 7 that referred to a May 6 Washington Post exposè revealing that the Minerals Management Service (part of the U.S. Interior Department) essentially gave BP a free pass on its drilling project. No environmental review was required. Here is what the Post said:

“Petrochemical giant BP didn't file a plan to specifically handle a major oil spill from an uncontrolled blowout at its Deepwater Horizon project because the federal agency that regulates offshore rigs changed its rules two years ago to exempt certain projects in the central Gulf region, according to an Associated Press review of official records.
The Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department known for its cozy relationship with major oil companies, says it issued the rule relief because some of the industrywide mandates weren’t practical for all of the exploratory and production projects operating in the Gulf region.”
According to Democracy Now, this “relief” for certain projects is called a “categorical exemption” and it is meant to circumvent cumbersome environmental reviews for SMALL projects like outhouses or hiking trails. In this case, BP was allowed to slip through this little loophole and engage in drilling without a review at all. Its own assessment was used by MMS, to wit, that spills are unlikely, and in the event one should occur, it wouldn’t exceed a few thousand gallons. This is the Big Lie of offshore drilling according to Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, who was interviewed on Democracy Now:

‘Offshore drilling is safe, and anyway it’s not where spills come from.’

So much for that one. The other big problem, according to Mr. Suckling, is the now head of the Interior Department, Ken Salazar. While he was a senator, Salazar was the darling of the oil drilling industry, receiving huge campaign donations from BP itself. When he became Interior Secretary, he promised, according to Suckling, to rein in the permissiveness at Minerals Management, which had routinely been granting drilling permits without reviews. Instead, Salazar has become a major proponent of offshore drilling, and even pushed MMS to pass more permits. In fact, Shell Oil Co. has a permit to begin offshore drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, where frigid waters make spills far worse than in the Gulf (witness what happened with the Exxon Valdez in 1989).

One more rat in the attic. It turns out that a major player in BP’s exploded drilling rig was our old friend Halliburton. They were the ones who did the concrete work that preceded not only the Gulf Oil spill, but another recent one off Australia. Here is what a recent piece in the Huffington Post (reprinted in Truthout) says:

“Giant oil-services provider Halliburton may be a primary suspect in the investigation into the oil rig explosion that has devastated the Gulf Coast, The Wall Street Journal reports …drilling experts agree that blame probably lies with flaws in the ‘cementing’ process - that is, plugging holes in the pipeline seal by pumping cement into it from the rig. Halliburton was in charge of cementing for Deepwater Horizon.” (“Was the Gulf Oil Spill an Act of War? You Betcha,” May 6, 2010)
So there you have it. British Petroleum, which touts itself as a major environmental player (save, of course, for its little oil-sands project in Canada—referred to in my recent blog on “Moral Economics”) ducked under environmental protection rules with a little government help, and used as its cementer, the great Halliburton of Dick Cheney and Iraq fame. Other than a minor environmental catastrophe, what could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Israel, Iran and Nukes

The latest public flap over the alleged nuclear weapons program engaged in by Iran, coupled with the deafening silence over the fact that Israel already has an estimated 200 nuclear weapons with no inspection by the IAEA, bespeaks more than just hypocrisy. What it also portends is an attack on Iran by Israel, with the possibility of nuclear retaliation by the United States if Iran tries to fight back. This is the opinion of Gareth Porter in a piece published on April 24 (“U.S. Nuclear Option on Iran Linked to Israeli Attack Threat”). In it, Porter noted that the Obama administration’s announced Nuclear Posture Review for the first time states publicly that “it is reserving the right to use nuclear weapons against Iran.” This is because “A war involving Iran that begins with an Israeli attack is the only plausible scenario that would fit the category of contingencies in the document.” Aside from the amazing nature of this proclamation by our so-called peacemaking nation, the question is why? Why would the Obama administration—one which most hopeful people had expected to REDUCE rather than increase the threat of nuclear war—need to publicly announce its right to use nukes, and against a nation which everyone knows has no nukes at all?

According to Porter’s analysis, which seems to make eminent sense, the announced threat is meant to persuade Iran that if Israel attacks its alleged nuclear sites (which Israel has continually threatened to do), the Iranians should not try to respond militarily against Israel. Why? Because in the event of such a ‘treacherous’ Iranian response, the United States could use its nuclear weapons against Iran. Indeed, it specifically reserves the right to do so, threatens to do so. For Iran this means that it now not only has to fear an attack by the most powerful nation in its region, Israel, but an attack by the most powerful nation in the world, the USA, and with its nuclear weapons bristling.

Now here is where it gets really disgusting. Monday, at the conference being held at the United Nations to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), President Ahmadinejad of Iran made a speech in which he fulminated against nuclear weapons themselves (“The nuclear bomb is a fire against humanity rather than a weapon for defense..”) and also criticized the United States for its above-noted threat to his nation. As the AP reported, “Ahmadinejad referred to the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review’s provision retaining an option to use U.S. atomic arms against countries not in compliance with the nonproliferation pact, a charge Washington lays against Iran.” He also said, “Regrettably, the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran.” In response, of course, the United States and several of its European lap-dogs walked out on the Iranian President’s speech. When it came time for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak, she directed much of her talk at Ahmadinejad, saying that Iran was “flouting the rules” of the NPT, and trying to “do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability.” She also accused Iran of defying “the Security Council and the IAEA and plac(ing) the future of the nonproliferation regime in jeopardy.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea added that “the onus is on Iran” to clear up doubts about its uranium enrichment program (it should be noted that so far, all that exists are accusations; Iran is perfectly within its rights as an NPT signer to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes; what it cannot do is use that enriched uranium for nuclear weapons—which our most recent CIA review said it was NOT doing.)

No one, however, mentioned either Israel’s existing nuclear weapons and refusal to join the NPT (no doubts about that), or the similar possession and refusal of Pakistan and India. It’s the unmentionable 2-ton gorilla in the room. For, as Thalif Deen points out in a May 3 Interpress Service article,

“at last month’s nuclear security summit in Washington DC, U.S. President Barack Obama was asked about Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But he diplomatically sidestepped the question when he pointedly told reporters: ‘As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their (nuclear weapons) program. What I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT. So there’s no contradiction there. [Oh really?] And so whether we’re talking about Israel or any other country, we think that becoming part of the NPT is important.’”
Isn’t that cute? Though the President of the United States thinks it’s “important” to become part of the NPT, he just can’t comment on Israel’s nukes (Why? Would he be struck by lightning? Sent to jail? Caught in his own hypocrisy?). He will say, though, that he has “urged” all countries to join. So again—why won’t our closest ally join? What does Israel have to hide? What options—like using its weapons in a first strike, or obliterating one of its many enemies in the Middle East—does it refuse to give up? Indeed, how is it that the United States, the great peacemaker and promoter of the NPT, not only refuses to abandon its own nuclear arsenal (the Soviet Union no longer exists after all), but specifically claims the right to use nukes against those countries not in compliance with the NPT? (which, we are sure, does NOT refer to Pakistan or India, who never joined; or to North Korea which, though it’s not in compliance, has nukes of its own and that could be messy; could it be Iran?)

In fact, it is not just Iran, but much of the rest of the world that wants such questions answered. At the UN’s NPT Review conference, that is, 118 out of 192 nations demanded that Israel reveal its nuclear weapons program and join the NPT (NB: nations in the NPT which have nukes are pledged to make every effort to get rid of them). The 118 Non-Aligned Movement nations, through their spokesman, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa, asserted that Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT has exposed the entire region to nuclear threats from “the only country possessing these weapons of mass destruction.” With its “unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and activities of unknown safety standards,” (because by not joining the NPT, Israel does not have to submit to IAEA inspections) Israel’s nuclear program not only exposes its neighbors to great risks, but also threatens a nuclear arms race of “catastrophic regional and international potential.” Such a situation, Natelagawa said, jeopardizes the NPT itself, as well as the proposed creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, something Ahmadinejad also referred to (see Thalif Deen, “Israel, Iran Targeted at Nuke Non-Proliferation Meet,”, May 3, 2010).

What, then, can one say about the prospects for a revitalized NPT—especially in light of the fact that, with a United States assurance of nuclear backing, Israel may even now be planning a military strike against Iran? One would have to say the prospects are dim. Though President Obama seems sincere in his desire to rid the world of these weapons, or at least to bring them under greater control, he also seems hamstrung by the “special relationship” with the nuclear-armed pit bull known as Israel. He seems equally committed to creating a convenient scapegoat of Iran—whose loose cannon of a president, and fundamentalist mullahs in charge, make perfect whipping boys. With such elements in place, and with the United States’ reputation in tatters from a decade of unprovoked attacks against three Islamic nations, one would have to be far more of an optimist than I am to think things nuclear might resolve any time soon. On the other hand, if a sufficient body of world opinion decides to reject blatant nuclear hypocrisy and starts demanding something like full disclosure about nuclear weapons (including those of the thus-far unmentionable nations), it might happen. For our future’s sake, we should all hope and pray that it does.

Lawrence DiStasi

Food, Inc.

I recently watched the documentary, Food, Inc., by Robert Kenner, and I recommend that every person who is brave enough to know about the food he/she eats in America go out today and rent it, order it from Netflix, or get it from your local library (where I got mine; though I saw it first on my local PBS station). Now I, like many of you, have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation; have read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both of whom star in Food, Inc.); have read many other books on food and genetic engineering. But this documentary packs a more powerful visual and emotional punch than any single book could. That’s because you can read about the horrors of industrial agriculture, of chicken/hog/cattle ‘food operations’ (CAFOs), but until you see one, you can’t really imagine the sheer filth, cruelty and torture imposed on creatures whose health cannot help but be related to our own. Indeed, at one point in the section on chicken farming (one cannot really call it “farming” any more; it is industrialized mass slaughter of the most brutal kind), where a chicken farmer named Carole Morrison, masked to keep from breathing in the dust and feces pervading the place, was culling dead birds from her barn floor (after explaining that because of the large breasts demanded by American fast food, modern chickens have become so top-heavy that their internal organs and bones can’t hold them up and they flop to the floor after a few steps)—I began to weep. My guess is that each person will be moved in this way by a different segment of the film, but my hope is that you’ll stick with it long enough to become outraged. For as the film points out, this story isn’t just about what we’re eating. It’s about what anyone can say about it. And that’s what everyone needs to know: the stranglehold that a few American corporations have over the production and distribution of food (and how that production is, or is not, regulated) in these United States is increasing daily.

It has not always been so. When I was growing up, we bought our chickens from a chicken store in our neighborhood that had live chickens in wooden cages. You selected one, the butcher would slaughter it right there, and you would bring it home to remove the tiny feather quills still in the chicken, clean out the guts, and cook it. You knew what you were eating. But since the beginning of industrial agriculture—which began in the 1930s with fast food drive-ins, and then really exploded when the McDonald brothers brought the factory system into the back of their drive-in restaurant (making each worker do one thing over and over, so unskilled workers could be hired more cheaply and the servers could be dispensed with completely), not just fast food but ALL food grown in America has changed utterly. That’s because of the gargantuan volume of meat and all else that fast-food chains buy. McDonald’s, for instance, is the largest purchaser of ground beef, potatoes and tomatoes in the United States. What they demand is uniformity: all ground beef the same, all potatoes the same variety. And all grown the same way, on a massive scale. The result: in the 1970s, the top five beef packers controlled only 25% of the market; today, the top four control 80% of the market. So virtually all meat is grown (corn-fed) and processed in the same way, and the hamburger that results comes from hugely varied places (and countries), all mixed together into ground beef that has a far higher chance of being contaminated with E. coli than when you were getting your hamburger from one steer part ground right in front of you at your local meat market. Of course, the meat packers know there’s this little problem (more about that later), so rather than change the way beef is fed and medicated and slaughtered, they try technological fixes. One such fix involves washing the beef with ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) in a gleaming stainless steel plant. As the documentary notes in print: “The finished product. Hamburger meat filler that’s been cleansed with ammonia to kill E. coli.” We see this stuff (mashed-up everything-left-over) being packed in plastic-lined boxes, but it doesn’t look like meat at all; it looks like a huge rectangle of white, pasty stuff that resembles glue. And the owner of this plant brags: “Our meat is 70% of the hamburger in the country and soon will be 100%.”

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching part of the film relates to this E. coli problem. Barbara Kowalcyk, a registered Republican, tells the story of her son Kevin, who at age 2 ½ ate some fast-food hamburger in Colorado. Poisoned by E. coli 157H7 (which never grew in the naturally acidic cow rumen before the feedlot revolution, which forces corn into an animal evolved to eat grass), he died in twelve days of kidney failure, begging for water he was not allowed to drink more than a few drops of due to his condition. Since then, Kowalcyk, with her mother, have been haunting the halls of Congress to get legislation passed to implement rules for meat contamination that would allow the USDA, once again, to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat (in 1998, the courts ruled that the USDA did NOT have this authority). As of the time the documentary was produced, Kevin’s Law still had not passed the Congress. Kowalcyk is shown testifying:

“It has been seven years since my son died. All I wanted the company to do was say ‘we’re sorry we produced this defective product that killed your child and this is what we’re going to do to be sure it wouldn’t happen again.’ That’s all we wanted. And they couldn’t give me that.”

Moreover, later in the film Barbara Kowalcyk is asked about a specific product that is problematic, and she declines to answer, saying “they have made it against the law to criticize their products.” She cited the Oprah case, wherein a comment about not eating hamburger resulted in a lawsuit that cost the TV star over a million dollars to fight off, as well as a Colorado law making it a “felony under veggie libel law to criticize a product, so you could go to prison…” This sequence ends by noting that the food industry is now proposing laws to make it a crime to photograph a food-processing operation like a feedlot or chicken factory—a law which would have made Food, Inc. an illegal film.

Which is exactly the point. Industrial food corporations do not want American consumers to know where their food comes from (or rather, they want to maintain the illusion of pastoral farms with happy cows). If they did know, if every American watched Food, Inc., the whole sick structure would collapse. Corporate America, therefore, spends billions of dollars lobbying members of Congress for ever-more draconian laws to allow them to do whatever they want, and to restrict investigations into their evil practices. Monsanto (I have just noticed that this pesticidal, genetic-engineering monster now has a website devoted to answering questions about the issues raised by Food, Inc.—indicating that these bastards have been hit hard by the film and will stop at nothing to propagandize against it. See ), for example, used to employ Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as one of its lawyers (they have legions of them). Instead of recusing himself (as Stephen Breyer did), Thomas is preparing to hear the latest case against Monsanto, currently making its third appeal in its genetically-engineered alfalfa case. Without Breyer, and with Thomas already in their pockets (he has written key decisions in previous cases favoring his former employer), a decision for Monsanto could end up giving them ownership over the fourth largest crop in the United States (along with their monopoly on soybeans.) For this compassionate purveyor of Agent Orange (the toxic Monsanto herbicide the U.S. Military used 72 million liters of, spraying it over 1 million Vietnamese civilians and 100,000 U.S. troops), it will be business as usual. This means that more and more farmers trying to grow conventional crops, saving seeds as farmers have always done, will be sued by Monsanto for “patent infringement.” Food, Inc., essentially ends with a Monsanto segment about this, interviewing desperate farmers who have been driven out of business by this techno-devil.

The trouble began in 1990, when Monsanto began selling Roundup Ready soybeans (a genetically-altered soybean seed that is able to survive spraying with the Monsanto pesticide, Roundup, while everything else dies). At the time, only 2% of soybeans in the United States contained Monsanto’s patented gene. By 2008, over 90% of soybeans in the U.S. contained it. Worse, Monsanto began sending out its team of 75 thugs to investigate (and intimidate) farmers suspected of saving their seeds. If Monsanto finds the farmer’s field contaminated with its seed (farmers hate such contamination, but are helpless to prevent it), these farmers can then be sued for patent infringement. Most farmers, faced with the grueling prospect of an expensive court fight wherein they have to prove they have not violated Monsanto’s patents (i.e. by intentionally stealing their seed), have quietly given up and succumbed to Roundup Ready seeds. But a few holdouts have been sticking to the old way, using seed cleaners to prepare their saved seeds for planting. Moe Parr, a seed cleaner who depends on traditional farmers who save seed, testifies that his is one of only six seed cleaners left in Indiana (there used to be three in every county, he asserts). He also reminds us that land grant colleges (most state universities) were in part founded to develop seed for their farmers, but “public breeding is a thing of the past.” Because of his alleged role in helping farmers to save seed (and resist Monsanto), Moe Parr was sued by Monsanto “on the basis that I’m encouraging farmers to break the patent by cleaning their own seed.”

Like other farmers, Parr tried to defend himself in a David vs. Goliath fight. The downward spiral progressed from farmers not wanting to be seen with him, to more and more of his money vanishing into court costs and lawyers. Parr is shown answering questions in court after Monsanto subpoenaed all of his financial records. Exposing each farmer who paid him, the records, if elaborated on, would force him to betray his friends. “This essentially puts me out of business,” he says. And in print we read: “Four months later, Moe Parr settles with Monsanto because he can no longer pay his legal bills.” The same scenario is repeated everywhere. Monsanto sues a farmer not because it has a legitimate case, but because it knows it can sustain endless legal costs while its victims cannot. The upshot is clear: Monsanto now owns the soybean, owns corn, and will soon own alfalfa.

There is far more in Food, Inc., but I think you get the idea. A few agribusiness giants now own all food production in this country, and their use of pesticides and other industrial processes is poisoning the crops, the animals, the waterways, the soil, and us. Since agribusiness also owns the Congress and other sectors of government (Anne Veneman, Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture, was on the Board of Directors of Monsanto’s Calgene Corp.), the likelihood of better regulation seems remote.

What can be done? Food, Inc. ends with some useful recommendations, all of which come down to this: know what you’re buying, and signal by your food choices that you reject corporatized industrial agriculture and all it stands for. Buy local if possible. And get involved through websites like the one produced by Organic Consumers: . It can’t hurt, and just might push the corporations hard enough to modify and eventually break up their cash cows. Meantime, if you happen to run into one of the CEOs of Monsanto, or Cargill, or Smithfield Corp (they slaughter 32,000 hogs per day in their Tar Heel, NC plant)., or Tyson Foods (they hire ‘farmers’ to raise those breast-heavy ‘chickens’ in dark windowless sheds that hold 300,000 birds; typical salary, $18,000; typical debt, $500,000.) , or McDonald’s, you have my permission and encouragement to give them a piece of your….mind, of course.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Goldman: Doing God's Work

I’ve just read over my last blog (July 19 last year) on Goldman Sachs, and it’s déjà vu all over again. Paul Krugman wrote shortly before then that Goldman had been selling toxic mortgage-backed securities to its customers, while at the same time making billions by “selling mortgage-backed securities short, just before their value crashed.”

The new twist in recent days is that Goldman Sachs was not only doing this, but that it neglected to tell its customers anything about its short selling. Just to keep you updated, “selling short” means that a stock trader bets that a given stock is about to go down—and when it does, he makes as much money as if he bet successfully on it going up. I first learned about this through a stock trader years ago, the new husband of an old friend, who the day I visited their New York apartment, happily informed me that he and his son had just made about $2 million dollars that day. His specialty, “selling short.” Though betting that a stock would go down seemed insane to me, Dick explained it was perfectly legitimate, and smart.

Apparently, the boys at Goldman think the same way. Only, again, they somehow forget to tell their customers about it, i.e., that the securities they’re pushing on them are, in their opinion, doomed and, as a result, they’re secretly selling those same securities short. Worse, in emails that have been made public by the Securities and Exchange Commission (which has brought legal action against Goldman for this type of fraud), Goldman managers have boasted of their cleverness in bilking widows and orphans out of their money. Fabrice Tourre, a Goldman trader, joked: “I’ve managed to sell a few Abacus (the name of the toxic portfolio) bonds to widows and orphans that I ran into at the airport, apparently these Belgians adore (them).” (quoted by AP, 4/24/10). Tourre also quoted Dan Sparks, manager of Goldman’s subprime business, as saying that the business “is totally dead, and the poor little subprime borrowers will not last so long!” Ho ho.

Evidently, a hedge-fund manager named John Paulson (his personal income in this hedge business during the crisis amounted to over $10 million a day! according to Gregory Zuckerman in “The Greatest Trade Ever”) helped Goldman select investments for Abacus knowing that it was going to go into the toilet (Paulson put the deal together as a hedge, i.e. betting that the securities would go down), and then pushed the deal to its customers. Those customers, kept in the dark, were mainly European banks who had no idea that the American housing market was so shaky. Goldman managers, like CFO David Viniar, referred to the Goldman strategy as “the big short.” Of course, Goldman is publicly denying that it had organized a strategy of going short, but the firm’s records show otherwise. Together with its role in bringing down AIG, its use of nearly interest-free government funds to make huge profits, and its use of exotic swaps to help Greece disguise its financial problems (while it bet against Greece by shorting Greece’s debt), this makes plain that the premiere investment bank in the world is indeed what Matt Taibbi called it last year: a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” As to the financial sector of which Goldman is the most shining example, its share of domestic corporate profits “never higher than 16 percent until 1986, hit 41 percent in the last decade” (Frank Rich, NY Times, 4/25/10). And you were wondering whatever happened to American manufacturing, to American firms which actually produce something other than fraud?

But the question I want to raise, again, is “who are these people?” What kind of flesh-devouring, soul-killing robots can bear to engage in this kind of criminality? From their point of view, it’s called “enlightened self interest.” From their CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s perspective, they are doing “God’s work.” I suppose if you believe that God is a sadistic, cruel, diabolical destroyer of hopes and dreams, lives and cities and whole countries, a deity who enjoys watching widows and orphans get screwed while wealthy dweebs (just watch them as they testify before the Senate Finance Committee) luxuriate in their pools and palaces, then perhaps it is God’s work. But if you question what kind of nation could allow this to go on, what kind of economic system could foster this kind of cruelty, fraud, inequality and sheer human suffering—then you may be thinking that something more than new regulations or new legislation is going to be needed. What that eventually turns out to be is still not clear. But I know one thing: if I were one of the executives in any of these so-called banks or brokerage houses, I wouldn’t walk too casually or conspicuously down the street these days.

P.S. In their testimony before the Senate yesterday, Goldman execs vigorously disputed the notion that they had an obligation to disclose anything whatsoever to their customers (suckers). Lloyd Blankfein insisted that Goldman was just acting as a marketer, selling the level of risk their customers wanted. In sum, these guys make used-car salesmen seem like (I was going to say Franciscans, but given the odor of priests these days, it might not be such a good metaphor) Mother Theresas.

Lawrence DiStasi

Myriad Genetics Patents Your Genes

I heard it first on the PBS News Hour, and then on CBS’ 60 Minutes on April 4. There is a company named Myriad Genetics, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, that has patented the genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer. They are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad Genetics also has tests for mutations on these two cancer-predisposition genes, tests that many women like May Girard want to have done so they can know if they are at risk for these cancers. It could save their lives. The problem for Ms. Girard is that Myriad’s BRACAnalysis test is costly—around $3000—and when she tried to find another company to test her for these genes, she was told that only Myriad has the patent so only Myriad can administer the tests. No other company is even allowed to work with these genes. They belong to Myriad. Even though they’re in Ms. Girard’s body, and possibly your body as well? Even so.

The very notion seems bizarre, even impossible. How can a company own your genes? But the grim truth is that biotech companies have been busy buying up genes to the extent that, according to 60 Minutes, some twenty percent of all human genes have been patented so far. That’s 20% of your body that’s now owned by some corporate entity or other. And the rest will no doubt be patented soon.

This was the situation that outraged Ms. Girard and the ACLU (and other groups), which sued Myriad Genetics in court. The good news is that on March 30, a U.S. District Court ruled against Myriad’s exclusive ownership of these genes, and in favor of the ACLU. Judge Robert Sweet said in his ruling, “Because the claimed isolated DNA is not markedly different from native DNA as it exists in nature, it constitutes unpatentable subject matter” (AP, March 30, 2010). That is, companies cannot patent nature—which would seem to be a no-brainer. But to the geniuses of corporate America, it’s anything but. As a lawyer for Myriad, Brian Poissant, said: “This is not nature’s handiwork…this is the hard work of man” (Reuters, March 30). So Myriad’s reaction to the decision was, first, to say that the decision wouldn’t have much effect on its business (only a few of its patents were voided; it holds sixteen more on these genes); and, second, to say that it would ask the Court of Appeals to overturn the decision. Analysts noted that such appeals could keep the case in litigation limbo for years. Which is the reason that securities analysts opined that other companies, though apparently now allowed to produce competing tests for BRCA, will not do so, fearing that the ruling could be overturned by a higher court. Given the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, this appeared to be a good bet.

So there you have it. The code to your body is fast becoming the patented property of corporate America—in much the same way that much of your food, when it is genetically modified, becomes the property of giant corporate monstrosities like Monsanto or Cargill. As to the wisdom of allowing the moral degenerates who run American business to own exclusive rights to the very template of your body, consider the advice that was given before Myriad ran into the above-named lawsuit. “My top idea for 2009 is Myriad Genetics” said one Mike Cintolo. In the Cabot Market Letter, Cintolo looked at what he called “the leader in the new field of cancer predisposition testing….Myriad Genetics has five tests on the market (covering colon, breast, ovarian, and skin cancer) that tell a patient if his genes make it more likely that he’ll get various types of cancer.” Which is to say, Myriad owns this stuff, and, medical ethics to the contrary, it ain’t giving it away. In addition, Myriad’s CEO and President, Peter Meldrum, was chosen best biotech CEO in 2008 by Adam Feuerstein. Why? For “pulling off one of the smartest drug licensing deals of all time.” What Meldrum did was sell Myriad’s already faltering Alzheimer’s treatment, Flurizan, to a Danish drugmaker, Lundbeck, in a deal that included “an up front $100 million payment. Unfortunately for Lundbeck, just a month later Flurizan went belly-up in a Phase III trial, but Myriad got to keep the non-refundable payment (the $100 million), which covered the cost of conducting a Phase III trial of the doomed drug. Meldrum effectively passed Myriad’s problem drug to Lundbeck and got $100 million in the process.” ( ).

In short, the clever (read 'sociopathic') head of Myriad gets high praise and adulation for what? for his ability to hoodwink another company into giving him $100 million for a drug he knew was doomed. Top businessman, CEO of the year! So what do you think? Feel comfortable entrusting your genes, your very life to the likes of Myriad Genetics and its CEO Meldrum? I mean, he’s probably a pillar of his community and his church as well. What could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi