While cottonseed has long been used in cattle feed, traditional cotton plants and seeds contain gossypol, which is toxic to humans and non-ruminant animals. However, a new variety of cotton offers an additional source of protein not available in the past.
Texas A&M’s Dr. Keerti Rathore has spent nearly 25 years developing a variety of cotton containing seeds that can be utilized for animal and human consumption. This variety successfully developed by Dr. Rathore and his team still carries gossypol in the plant itself to protect from pests but contains ultra-low levels of gossypol in the seeds. The United States Department of Agriculture deregulated the plant in October of 2018, and the Food and Drug Administration approved the ultra-low gossypol cottonseed for animal and human consumption in October of 2019.
The edible cottonseed provides a readily available source of protein to supplement diets around the world. Experts estimate every pound of cotton lint yields 1.6 pounds of cotton seed. According to Rathore, roughly 10.8 trillion grams of protein are present in the annual worldwide cotton production—that’s enough protein to satisfy the basic protein needs of over 500 million people. It is also more protein than can be found in all the chicken eggs produced globally.
The seeds can be introduced into the human diet in many forms, including raw and roasted kernels (similar to peanuts), bread, tortillas, energy/protein bars and shakes, peanut butter substitutes, etc. The seeds also provide great opportunities for feed in the livestock and aquaculture industries. Though already used some in cattle feed, the low-gossypol seeds can now be utilized to feed swine, poultry and any other non-ruminant animals in production. Grinding the seeds into livestock feed provides a great source of protein for the animals and provides an adequate substitute while alleviating some of the stress on the soybean meal and corn silage markets.
For aquaculture, utilizing the seeds for fish feed can reduce the use of several species of ocean-dwelling fish that are harvested to serve as feed. Experts also believe that the edible seeds have the potential to slow the clearing of land in the Amazon and other places. Such clearing has occurred in order to make space for soybean cultivation needed to provide proper protein for a growing population.
As the son of a doctor in rural India, Rathore has seen firsthand the negative health effects that malnutrition has on a society. He hopes that his development can combat malnutrition in developing countries that produce large amounts of cotton. India and China, two of the world’s prominent cotton producers, struggle greatly with hunger and could benefit tremendously from the cultivation and integration of ultra-low gossypol seeds in their diets. Currently, this new technological breakthrough is only available in one cultivar developed by Dr. Rathore, but this will likely be a game changer in protein and become a standard trait in all future cotton cultivars.