From fiber to food

Cotton is most known for its fiber, not food, but that may change with a newly developed variety of the plant.

Until now, cottonseeds had limited uses, either as oil or ingredients in feed for cattle and other ruminant animals. Even though they’re packed with protein, cottonseeds are poisonous to humans because of the toxic compound gossypol, which is found throughout conventional cotton plants. Gossypol helps to protect the plant against insects and viruses, but in humans, gossypol is toxic to red blood cells, causing anemia and even death. Ruminants with multiple stomachs can safely process gossypol, but human stomachs cannot.

Thanks to Texas A&M plant scientists, a new kind of cotton can now be grown for human consumption. This past fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to ultra-low gossypol cotton, something the researchers have been working on for nearly 25 years.

The transgenic cotton plant—TAM66274—lacks gossypol in its seeds, making them safe to eat. The compound is still pres­ent in the rest of the plant to maintain protection against pests and diseases, and the ability to produce cotton fiber is unaffect­ed. The idea is that TAM66274 could not only provide a cheap and plentiful source of protein to people around the world, but that it may also serve as an extra source of income to farmers without the need for additional land, water or fertilizer. They can continue to sell their fiber and market the seed as more than just an inexpensive byproduct.

And cotton plants are prodigious seed producers. Every pound of cotton fiber comes with 1.6 pounds of seed. Accord­ing to the Texas A&M researchers, the amount of protein locked up in the annual output of cottonseed worldwide is more than what is present in all the chicken eggs produced globally— enough to meet the basic protein requirements of more than 500 million people.

The next steps are securing import approvals and finding commercial seed companies to license the trait and create ul­tra-low gossypol varieties. Researchers hope these varieties will be available to growers in the next five to 10 years.

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