Biotech Cottonseed Shows Promise to Alleviate Third World Hunger

Published May 1, 2004

A new, high-protein and low-cost food for people struggling with hunger in Third World nations may soon be available thanks to advances in biotechnology, reported the January 27 Science Daily.

Researchers at Texas A&M University are using gene-splicing techniques to reduce gossypol, a highly toxic compound, from cottonseed to a level considered safe for human consumption.

Gene Silenced

The cottonseed from genetically modified plants meets World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for food consumption.

Keerti Rathore, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station plant technologist who has led the research, noted in a Texas A&M news release that the genetically modified seed has the potential to provide a nutritious and affordable food source for as many as 600 million people a year.

Rathore used RANi, a technology that can “silence” a gene, to achieve his breakthrough. RANi technology allowed Rathore to target the gossypol gene only in the cottonseed but let the gene express itself in the rest of the plant. Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello discovered RANi, an achievement that landed the two scientists the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2006.

“Very few people realize that for every pound of cotton fiber, the plant produces 1.6 pounds of seed,” Rathore pointed out in the Texas A&M news release.

High-Quality Protein

Global cottonseed production is currently 44 million metric tons every year. Cottonseed typically contains about 22 percent protein. The cottonseed protein is considered high quality by nutritionists.

The food value of the genetically modified crop will be especially beneficial in countries “where there are small farmers who grow cotton, and if they could use the seed they could get much more value from it,” Rathore noted.

The researchers have been successful in maintaining the trait through three generations in the lab. The next step will be to screen for the best plants from the many lines they have produced, then grow the cotton plants with the trait in a greenhouse.

Field demonstrations will follow that, Rathore said.

Multiple Benefits Envisioned

Rathore estimates it will take at least another decade in the development of cotton varieties for widespread commercial production. Plants with the new trait developed by the team of scientists could make the cottonseed more valuable both as a food crop and as a more palatable livestock food source.

“One could utilize the cottonseed either directly as food if there is no gossypol or as feed for livestock,” Rathore pointed out.

Cattle can tolerate the gossypol, but only after digesting it through the four compartments in their stomachs.

Natural Scientific Progression

Henry Miller, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, noted virtually all of the 200 major crops grown in the United States have been genetically engineered in some way. “Plant breeders–not Mother Nature–gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo, and fungus-resistant strawberries,” said Miller.

“In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game and berries may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some way,” Miller added.

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC and author of The Green Wave: Environmentalism and its Consequences, published by the Capital Research Center.

For more information …

“Technology Reduces Gossypol in Cotton Seed,” Science Daily, January 27, 2007,