The Southeast is a major producer of poultry, cattle and swine, but is a grain deficit region. Cottonseed is a common component of livestock feed, but the great fear is gossypol poisoning, which significantly restricts its use for animal feed.

Non-ruminant animals such as poultry and swine can't handle much gossypol before toxicity signs develop. This is why cottonseed meal can't be used at high levels in rations for those animals.

Cattle have the ability to detoxify gossypol because the microorganisms in the rumen bind it so it can't be absorbed. This ability can be overcome at very high levels of cottonseed feeding, but cattle will not normally be affected at recommended feeding levels.

Gossypol can cause a temporary reduction in sperm cell formation in bulls when fed above the recommended level. Some research has indicated fertility problems, but some experiments have not been able to show any problems. The importance of bull fertility to overall beef cattle profits and loss has caused most producers to avoid using gossypol-containing feed.

Gossypol has been looked at in recent years more for its medicinal value in humans than for it culinary promise. It has been used experimentally as a male contraceptive in China and is known to have anti-malarial properties. Researchers in recent years have looked at gossypol as a cancer treatment.

The concept of cottonseed for human consumption isn’t brand new. Texas A&M University Scientist Keerti Rathore, found a way to remove gossypol from cotton without removing its protective properties against insects for the cotton plant back in 2006. The prospect of a relatively inexpensive and plentiful source of protein to feed people worldwide has captured the attention of other scientists.

“There are a lot of poor people who cannot afford diets that contain a reasonable amount of protein. It will be nice to be able to utilize this source," Rathore says.

The Texas A&M researcher admits to trying a few gossypol-free cottonseed. “Not bad, he says, taste a little like chickpeas with a slightly nutty flavor.”

Rathore says the kernel of the non-toxic cotton seed can be roasted and salted and used as a snack food or in salads. He says the kernel can also been ground into flour and combined with wheat and corn flours to enrich them with protein.

Danny Llewellyn, an Australian scientist, has worked for a number of years to perfect cotton varieties that produce cottonseed free of gossypol. He says his research will allow cottonseed to be used more widely as an animal feed and extend its uses as a substitute for other high-value oils, like canola (rapeseed) oil, providing low cost protein on a global basis.

By adding the edible factor, as either a human or animal food source, cotton can be become a much more valuable commodity for rural economies. The expected re-emergence of King Cotton in the Southeast is expected to raise economic hopes in small towns from southeast Virginia to the Florida Panhandle.

Reed stresses that Cotton Inc. is seeking multiple ways to enhance the value of the entire cotton plant, all of which could add significantly to stability of rural economies across the Cotton Belt.