Ever thought about sitting down to a succulent dinner of steak, fries and cotton? Few have, but edible cotton may be on the horizon, significantly increasing the overall value of a cotton plant and a cotton crop.

The price of cotton is good today, but growers remember recent times when the prospect of planting a crop wasn’t so rosy. If edible cotton can increase the value of cotton as livestock feed, or more dramatically for human use, price stability and rural economic growth could be beneficial to farmers and rural economies across the Cotton Belt.

Janet Reed, with Cotton Incorporated, says edible cotton isn’t so far-fetched and may be much more versatile than most believe as a food product. Once gossypol is removed from the seed of cotton, it can be safely eaten by humans and livestock.

Speaking at a recent North Carolina agriculture and biotechnology meeting, Reed says, cotton seed — the bioengineered kernels — can be roasted and salted. Researchers also are looking at ways of using cottonseed in combination with wheat and corn flours to enrich the protein content of these products.

Though cottonseed containing gossypol for human consumption has some potentially dangerous possibilities, few doubt these seeds are packed with protein and potentially a source of feeding millions of people worldwide.

Reed says current cotton production would provide enough cottonseed to provide the daily protein needs of more than 500 million people worldwide. That potential is somewhere in the future. Currently, researchers are developing enough plants to grow edible cotton in field testing.

For a world population that is expected to top 8.5 billion within the next decade and a half, any hope of low-cost, plentiful protein is reason to be optimistic. The demand by growing middle classes in developing countries for meat products is another reason to push development of cottonseed edible to a wider range of livestock animals.

By reducing the gossypol content of cottonseed, via biotechnology, it is feasible that cottonseed usage as livestock feed could be significantly expanded and possibly put cottonseed on the menu for human consumption.

Gossypol is a commonly occurring chemical in cotton. It has developed over time as a defense mechanism that helps the cotton plant survive a multitude of production challenges.

Gossypol, which primarily protects cotton from insect damage, is a toxin that can cause heart damage in livestock and potentially in humans. It accumulates in tiny pockets on cottonseed and leaves. Researchers have produced cotton without the pockets, technically glands, but insect damage has been too great to make these varieties practical for growers.

Common livestock feed component

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.

rroberson@farmpress.com