Despite those numbers, all is not well within the biotech industry. Indeed, a trace amount of genetically engineered material contained in a fraction of the nation's 10 billion bushel corn crop is shaking the entire industry right down to its bottom line.
In September, Aventis CropScience's StarLink corn blindsided an industry already on edge. The GMO seeds, only approved for use in animal feed, found their way into the human food stream in small amounts. The contamination sparked a recall of some taco chips and tortilla shells. StarLink seeds, genetically modified to kill corn borers, contain a protein that might cause an allergic reaction in some humans.
Though the product comprises less than one percent of the total U.S. corn crop, Aventis has agreed to purchase any corn contaminated with StarLink and has taken the seed off the market. Even so, 16 State Attorneys General are seeking legal remedies to hold Aventis' feet to the fire.
And this week, the Environmental Protection Agency heard arguments from Aventis scientists who were seeking temporary approval for the StarLink already in the system.
The food processing industry, where the customer is always right, is protecting itself. Archer Daniels Midland is refusing all loads contaminated with StarLink but continues to accept all GMOs approved for use in food and feed.
In the mean time, biotech industry leaders are spinning off their life science divisions, though it is hard to tell if the cause is encouragement by the investment community, the high cost of product development and the low comparative return or the recent controversy. Biotech giant Monsanto already has split its life sciences division from its pharmaceutical group and it appears Aventis will do the same.
Meanwhile, purveyors of biotech seeds are changing their marketing strategies. Monsanto already has announced no GMOs will be released unless approval for human consumption has been obtained. The biotech giant has also decided to shift sales of GMOs away from states that typically export grain to ones that feed most of the crop to livestock.