Edible cotton is now a reality – good news for a protein-hungry world

Humans may likely be eating cotton in the not too distant future — not just wearing it — as a new edible variety is reaching the commercialisation stage.

The US Department of Agriculture has given the green light to commercialise a biotech version of the cotton plant whose seeds can be eaten, according to Texas A&M University, which developed it over more than two decades.

US FDA approval is still needed, which the university said it expects within months. After that, farmers will be able to grow cotton for food as well as for fibre.

The quest to make cottonseed edible

Texas A&M professor, Keerti Rathore, started working on the project 23 years ago, and figured out how to silence a gene in the plant that produced a toxin, called gossypol.

While gossypol protects the plant from insects, it makes the seeds inedible to humans and most animals.

For every pound of cotton fibre, a cotton plant produces 1.6 pounds of seeds. That’s 50 million tons of cottonseed annually, the International Cotton Advisory Committee reports.

Right now, about 5% of those seeds get planted, according to the National Cotton Council of America, and the rest is used, in various forms, for livestock feed, fertilizer, and cottonseed oil, which people can and do consume.

But because of the gossypol, cottonseed itself hasn’t been a source of human food.

For decades, scientists have been trying to change that. In the 1950s, the discovery of a gossypol-free cotton on the Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona seemed like it might offer an edible solution. But insects destroyed the crops, which is exactly the same fate that trashed attempts to breed gossypol-free cotton plants in the ’60s and ’70s.

“It was something that a lot of people have been trying to do,” Rathore said. “We did have competition from Australia and China.” But he and his team are the first to engineer a workaround.

The big innovation here is that Rathore’s transgenic cotton plant isn’t gossypol-free. By inserting “a new piece of DNA” into the plant, NPR explained, the team was able to keep the seeds from producing gossypol, while maintaining normal levels in the rest of the plant.

“More than half a billion people across the world may have access to a new form a protein,” Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp said in a release announcing the USDA approval.

It will be several years before farmers can grow it commercially, as seed supplies have to be ramped up starting next season, said Kater Hake, a vice president at Cotton Inc, which does research and marketing for growers and funded the project.

There’s a lot of protein in cottonseeds — enough to meet the daily requirements of 600 million people should all cotton in the world be replaced with edible varieties, Hake said.

Like nuts

As a tree nut, its nutritional value is similar to other nuts, like almonds or walnuts. Food technologists have experimented by making cottonseed milk, crackers, cookies, nut butters and chopped-nut substitutes, Hake said.

The protein could also be extracted and made into a powder that can go into energy bars or flours, Rathore said. “It’ll taste like hummus.”

The industry is also targeting aquaculture, according to Hake, because cottonseeds can be fed to carnivorous fish like salmon and trout. Cotton would be a low-cost alternative that can replace up to half of all fishmeal.

It’ll also help farmers, who will be able to sell the seeds, currently considered a near useless byproduct.

The discovery “opens up the opportunity that eventually every cotton plant will have this technology in it,” Hake said. “There’s no reason to leave a toxin in a domesticated plant.”

Source: Fortune.com; Vox.com