A crop that once divided America and contributed to the US Civil War holds promise to conquer world hunger.
Researchers at Texas A&M have genetically engineered a new cotton plant to make the seeds safe for human consumption.
Cottonseed with gossypol and edible ultra-low gossypol cottonseed (ULGCS), recently passed US Department of Agriculture deregulation criteria, and now awaits approval by the US Food & Drug Administration for animal and human consumption.
For every pound of cotton fiber, a cotton plant produces 1.6 pounds of seeds, equivalent to 50 million tons of cottonseed annually, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. But until the recent breakthrough, cottonseed has been poisonous to many animals and people due to a toxin called gossypol.
Keerti Rathore, a professor at Texas A&M, has been lead researcher on the project for 23 years. “You could meet the basic protein requirements of hundreds of millions of people,” with the seeds, he told the San Antonio Express News. “All the chicken eggs produced in the world right now (1.4 trillion) couldn’t meet the protein in what’s being produced in cottonseed.”
Cottonseed is high in protein and plentiful, grown by nearly 20 million farmers in 80 countries—many of them with high rates of malnutrition, adds the Express News.
Edible cottonseed developed at #TAMU could provide a new nutritious protein source to feed hundreds of millions of people around the globe! https://t.co/sld5sy5D1P #WorldFoodDay pic.twitter.com/Sabd4jnEWn
— Texas A&M University (@TAMU) October 17, 2018
“It was something a lot of people had been trying to do,” Rathore added. “We did have competition from Australia and China,” but his team engineered the first breakthrough by inserting a new piece of DNA into the cotton plant to prevent the seeds from producing gossypol.
Powerhouse partners in science, Chris Saski at Clemson and David Stelly at Texas A&M, are helping farmers around the world meet the growing demand for renewable fiber, oil, and fuel by better understanding the genetics of #cotton. Learn more: https://t.co/7ZfMAcwiDn
— Cotton Incorporated (@CottonInc) October 24, 2018
It will take several years before farmers can grow the crop commercially, as seed supplies ramp up starting next season. Kater Hake, VP Cotton Inc., said the discovery “opens up the opportunity that eventually every cotton plant will have this technology in it. There’s no reason to leave a toxin in a domesticated plant.”
Hake added that there’s enough protein in cottonseeds to meet the daily requirements of 600 million people if all cotton worldwide were replaced with edible varieties. The industry is also targeting aquaculture, said Hake, as cottonseeds can be fed to carnivorous fish like salmon and trout that eat ground-up fish. Cotton can also be a low-cost alternative replacing up to half of all fishmeal.
“The kernels from the safe seed could be ground into a flour-like powder after oil extraction and used as a protein additive in food preparations or perhaps roasted and seasoned as a nutritious snack,” said Rathore.
“It’ll taste like hummus,” he noted. “It’s not at all unpleasant.”
But as the Express News notes, before that product appears on grocery shelves, “an agreement will have to be reached with a seed company willing to market the trait for cotton farmers worldwide.” Texas A&M is in talks with potential distributors.
Cotton has been promoted for decades as part of ‘the fabric of our lives. That claim perhaps is just now being fully understood as biotech marks another milestone in bettering our lives.