The Food and Drug Administration deemed a Texas A&M AgriLife researcher’s genetically modified cotton seed as safe to consume — a milestone in the 25-year project that could improve agricultural sustainability across the globe.
The feat comes one year after A&M plant biotechnologist Keerti Rathore and his team received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval, which permit the seeds to be grown anywhere. While cotton seeds are high in protein, the naturally produced toxic substance gossypol has prevented people and single-stomach animals from eating the plant. But Rathore told AgriLife Today that this ultra-low gossypol version could change the game, since the annual output of cotton seeds around the world could meet the basic protein requirements of more than 500 million people.
This is the fifth university-developed, genetically engineered crop in the country to receive FDA approval and is the first for a university in Texas.
“This demonstrates how we can make a difference in enhancing the nutritional quality of the food system for those in greatest need, while enhancing the profitability of agriculture production,” Director of AgriLife Research Patrick Stover told AgriLife Today. “Our goal is to advance sustainable agriculture in Texas and around the world, and this new protein source is yet another step in that direction.”
While the new seeds have levels of gossypol that are safe to eat, the levels in the leaves and stalks are still high enough to protect the plant from insects, which Rathore said makes them ideal for farmers.
This is a major improvement from former A&M researchers’ attempts in the 1980s, which stripped the entire plant of gossypol, making it susceptible to insects.
The seeds could be a life-saver for countries in Asia and Africa that produce large amounts of cotton but also have people dying from hunger and malnutrition. According to AgriLife Today, the seeds can be eaten roasted or raw, and turned into flour or oil. But as the new food is getting off the ground, Rathore said the aquaculture and poultry industries likely could benefit the most.
By switching to the modified plants, the Amazon and other locations potentially could see a reduction in agricultural land-clearing that is usually the result of creating space for protein rich soybean crops.
For now, the goal is to sell farmers and industry leaders on the idea so global growth of the new seeds could lead to substantial change.
“We believe [the ultra-low gossypol cottonseed] represents a unique biotech trait that will benefit farmers, the cottonseed processing industry, the environment and human health,” Rathore said.