Failure does not always doom an idea — Thomas Edison went through many iterations of the light bulb before he finally got a commercially viable product.
Three different attempts were made by researchers over the decades to limit gossypol in cotton plants, says Robert Nichols, director of agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated.
Breeders could indeed take gossypol out and make the cottonseed suitable for animal feeds; only problem was, without the natural protection gossypol afforded the cotton plants were more vulnerable to insects and yields suffered.
“All three attempts failed, and in most circumstances the idea would’ve been tossed on the scrap heap,” Nichols said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.
Biotechnology opened new doors, though, and a fourth attempt worked — researchers were able to develop varieties in which the seeds have only about one-tenth of the USDA’s permissible level for feed/food use, but the stems, leaves, and flowers are still protected.
This is “a major scientific breakthrough,” says Nichols, and within a few years low gossypol cottonseed could become “a major, major source of income.”
Cottonseed’s role in the market will also change, he says.
“We’re in a situation right now, if there’s a scarcity of any grain crop anywhere in the world, the price of everything goes up. When we perfect this low gossypol variety, cottonseed will then put us in the feed business in a big way. We produce one-and-a-half to two times as much seed as we do lint on every acre. Cottonseed will become a major, major source of income. Within five years, this will put more money on your bottom line.”
Elimination of gossypol will also make cottonseed, which is high in protein, suitable for human consumption.
While there are some “delicate intellectual property issues to resolve,” along with regulatory approval from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), he says negotiations are now under way with a commercial interest, and “we expect to have a licensing agreement that could have this in one company’s variety within four years.”
Regulatory approval from APHIS is required because it’s a novel plant, Nichols says, but approval will not be required by the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re in negotiation with Texas A&M University for licensing rights so we can arrange for third party development. Our goal is not to sell this new cottonseed in direct competition with soybean feeds, but as a component of feed rations. We think cottonseed can ultimately be sold into the shrimp and catfish feed market, and perhaps for poultry and hogs as well. This will be a game changer that will fundamentally affect the value of cottonseed in years ahead.”
Nichols says, “We’re hoping to be able to be able to go to the field with this in 2011, if the USDA agrees, and we believe they will.”