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Friday, October 29, 2010

Cotton is King [Part 2]

This is part two on my posts about cotton.

Now that we know a little bit more about cotton as a crop and fiber product, let's talk about cotton as food. Cotton as food? Like cotton candy?

Well, after reading my last post, nobody really believes that cotton candy is the same stuff grown in the fields. Let alone, would you argue that cotton candy could actually be considered food!

The cotton plant, besides producing a sustainable fiber because many alternatives to it require processing with non-renewable resources like petroleum, produces a seed. In fact, for every pound of fiber, 1.65 pounds of cottonseed is produced. Cottonseeds are very high in protein, energy, fiber, Vitamin E and phosphorus. The seeds also contain gossypol which is a toxin.

So with the abundance of cotton grown on the earth and a large population to feed, how can we use this crop to provide us with food for humans? Currently there aren't too many options, but work is being done to improve this.

The major way cotton makes its way to our dinner table is in MEAT. While noxious to humans, cottonseeds can be utilized in rations fed to large ruminant animals as they digest it through the four compartments of their stomach. Gossypol does pose a problem with infertility in bulls (intact, male bovine), but for the most part can be and is highly utilized to provide protein and energy in feed for cattle. Cottonseed hulls are also utilized as a roughage to mix in with the feed. So, just like corn is grown to be fed to livestock so that we can enjoy a good steak - cotton contributes to our pantry as well.

So, if the world produces around 44 million metric tons of cottonseed, there should be a way to produce a consumable product. This is the goal of many businesses in the cotton industry - to produce a major source of protein to feed people on a global basis. Biologists at Texas A&M University are doing just that by leading a research team that is mapping the entire cotton genome. By doing this, they have found a technology to remove the gossypol producing genes from the seed making it edible for humans and other livestock. The gossypol genes are important for the plant to express in the leaves and stems to fend off disease and pests, but if removed from the seed could be a phenomenal food source!

So phenomenal, in fact, the 44 million metric tons of cottonseed that we produce can be converted into 10 million metric tons of protein!

All in all, the work being done with cotton as a food source really first became public knowledge in 2006, and scientists believe it will take about a decade to develop edible cotton varieties for commercial use. That means in about 5 years this could be a reality. This is a testament to work being done in production agriculture to change processes our ancestors used to better accommodate a growing population.

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