Can cotton be a food of the future?
Short answer “yes” with an “if,” long answer “no” with a “but.”
Seriously, Person points out that there is no simple answer to the question, other than at present it’s best not to try eating cotton or cottonseed. (Cotton candy doesn’t count.)
Of course, the agriculture industry has long made use of cotton byproducts for things other than simply using the cotton fibers for textiles.
Cottonseed is used to produce cottonseed oil, which, after refining, can be consumed by humans like any other vegetable oil. Also, cottonseed meal left over after processing can be fed to some livestock and cottonseed hulls can be added to dairy cattle rations for roughage.
But the main problem that keeps cottonseed from being a food source for humans is a natural chemical produced by cotton plants called gossypol.
Quoting a learned friend, Person writes that “Gossypol is a toxic compound found in the cotton plant. This compound is concentrated in the cottonseed but can also be found in other parts of the plant such as hulls, leaves and stems.
Gossypol exists in two forms: free and bound. The free form is toxic, while the bound form binds to proteins is not toxic.”
Amounts of free gossypol in cottonseed can vary, depending on such factors such as cotton plant species, climate conditions, soil conditions and fertilizers. The only way to determine gossypol levels is to test the cottonseed.
Person adds that gossypol not something with which to be trifled. In animals it affects mainly the heart and liver, but can also affect the reproductive tract and kidneys. Pigs and horses are highly susceptible to gossypol toxicity while cattle and sheep can tolerate higher levels of free gossypol.
Before humans can begin to consider consuming cottonseed, agronomists will need to come up with seeds that contain gossypol at levels below what is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration while maintaining normal levels of gossypol and related chemicals in the foliage, floral parts, cotton boll rind and the plant’s roots, she writes.
That’s because gossypol is essential in that it helps cotton plants defend themselves against insects and pathogens.
A colorful adventure goes on to write that a researcher at Texas A&M has been working on reducing the levels of gossypol in cotton in order to make the high protein source an option for both people and a wider array of animals.
The researcher, Keerti Rathore, was honored with recognition in January 2012 for his efforts.
These endeavors have caught the attention of Texas A&M soil and crop sciences professor Dr. Wayne Smith, who says cottonseed holds considerable potential as a food source for humans.
“Keerti has lines that show 95 percent reduction in seed gossypol that makes these seed – an excellent source of oil and protein – edible by humans,” Smith said. “This effort could lead to a new, high-quality food source for people around the world.”
While cottonseed at present isn’t a feasible food choice for humans because gossypol can be toxic to people, it could put a considerable dent in world hunger if researchers find a way to turn it into a safe protein source, Person said.
“If that were to happen, it could bring a protein source to parts of the world where there are currently few options,” she adds. “That’s good for the cotton business but more importantly, it would be fantastic for people in parts of Africa and India.”