Seeds from the cotton plant have been made safe to eat and could someday meet the protein needs of half a billion people a year, according to a new study.
Normally, a chemical called gossypol makes the seeds inedible for humans, but researchers at Texas A&M University genetically modified the plant to produce seeds with little or no gossypol. The results were reported in Tuesday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It tastes pretty good," said lead researcher Keerti Rathore. "It has a nutty flavor that reminds me of chickpeas."
The modified plants still have insect-resistant gossypol in their stems and leaves. The seed is 23% protein.
Cotton has been grown for thousands of years to provide clothing and shelter. Farmers worldwide produce 44 million tons of cottonseed each year. The seeds are pressed for oil, and with the gossypol removed, the meal can be roasted or ground into flour to make breads more nutritious, Rathore said.
Research geneticist Jodi Scheffler of the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., who was not involved in the study, said the development could provide a solution to "an age-old problem." But first, she said, scientists would have to determine whether the genetic change was stable from generation to generation.
It could become important for regions such as West Africa, where many small farmers grow cotton as a cash crop and would like to be able to use the seed to feed themselves and their livestock, Scheffler said.
About 850 million people in the world are malnourished, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Protein-energy malnutrition, the most common form, causes death or illness and stunts development.
The modified plant is years from widespread use, Rathore said. After greenhouse studies are finished, researchers must conduct field studies and win government approval.
This report includes information from Bloomberg and the Associated Press.