WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US regulators released the green light on Friday for genetically modified cotton to be used for human consumption, paving the way for a new protein-rich food source – the edible cotton seed that looks like a bit with chickpeas – which its developers said could help combat global malnutrition.
Genetically modified cotton plants with an edible cotton seed feature are seen growing near Belvidere, North Carolina, USA, in this image released October 11, 2019. Texas A&M University / Handout via REUTERS
The Food and Drug Administration's decision on the cotton plant developed by Texas A&M University scientists means that it is allowed as food for people and all kinds of animals.
Texas plant biotechnologist A&M AgriLife Research Keerti Rathore said scientists are holding discussions with companies and expect to have the plant commercially available within about five years. Rathore said the team will also explore seeking regulatory approval in other countries, starting with Mexico.
"Yes, we are fully aware of GMO resistance in many countries, but I remain hopeful that countries that are desperate for food will embrace this technology," Rathore added.
Cotton is grown in over 80 countries, with its fiber used in the manufacture of textiles and cotton seeds currently used among other purposes to feed animals such as cattle and sheep that have multiple stomach chambers. Common cottonseed is not suitable for humans and many animals to eat as it contains high levels of gossypol, a toxic chemical.
Rathore's team used so-called RNAi, or RNA interference, technology to "silence" a gene, virtually eliminating gossypol from cottonseed. Gossypol was left at natural levels in the rest of the plant because it protects against insects and disease.
“With the adoption of this technology, cotton becomes a dual purpose crop. It does not require any additional effort from farmers or inputs or cropland. So this will make cotton farming more sustainable, ”said Rathore.
Genetic modification does not affect plant fiber for use in textiles.
The US Department of Agriculture last year lifted a regulatory ban on farmers growing the modified cotton plant before the FDA's decision on human consumption.
“Cottonseed can be consumed in many ways. We will continue to crush it to extract oil (usable for cooking). However, the remaining high protein meal can now be used as a protein supplement in tortillas, breads and baked goods. The seed kernels can be roasted and eaten as a snack or as peanut butter or in protein bars, ”said Rathore.
“It tastes like chickpeas to me. Imagine hummus with no other ingredients added to it, ”added Rathore.
Many of the world's cotton-producing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, have populations facing malnutrition that can be treated with the new plant, Rathore said.
“There are approximately 10.8 trillion grams of protein blocked in annual global cottonseed production. That is enough to meet the basic protein requirements of over 500 million people at a rate of 50 grams of protein per person per day, ”said Rathore.
The new cottonseed may also have commercial use as feed for poultry, pigs and farmed aquatic species such as fish and shrimp, Rathore said.
Will Dunham report; Editing by Sandra Maler
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