For most folks, agricultural research isn’t exactly the sexiest topic of conversation. But the cutting-edge research being done in labs at leading U.S. universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and various ag trade organizations offers tremendous promise for a healthier and more secure food future.
Research into new uses for cotton is a case in point. Cotton is no longer thought of as just — or even principally — a source of durable clothing fiber. It’s increasingly seen as a food and feed product that can be incorporated into a dizzying array of new, productive uses. Here’s a look at the next frontier for cotton research — and how you and your family stand to benefit.
One of the biggest challenges facing cotton producers involves gossypol, a natural pesticide that protects the cotton plant from harmful insects and microorganisms. Unfortunately, gossypol isn’t just bad for pests — it’s also unsuitable for human consumption in large quantities. That means cottonseed meal and other cotton byproducts can’t be incorporated into human food. Only cottonseed oil, which undergoes a heavy-duty purification process to remove its gossypol, is safe for human consumption.
But we might be just a few years away from a complete paradigm shift. A recent scientific breakthrough suggests that it’s possible to silence the genes responsible for producing gossypol in cottonseeds without affecting its production elsewhere in the plant. In other words, unprocessed cottonseed could soon be a viable food source that’s just as good at fighting pests as ever before.
Biodiesel for Campus Vehicles
Researchers at New Mexico State University are gassed — literally — about a new breakthrough that finds spent cottonseed being used as a biodiesel for campus vehicles and fixed implements. This is a classic “two birds with one stone” situation: After gossypol-less cottonseed meal is used to cook wholesome food in the school’s cafeteria kitchen, the leftover bits are shipped across campus for use in — among other things — a cotton experiment station’s irrigation pump. Talk about coming full circle.
A Powerful New Aquaculture Ingredient
Lots of American cooks are thrilled that cotton could soon be a legitimate source of protein and energy for hungry, discerning diners. But cotton also looks poised to play a critical role in aquaculture, an eco-friendly means of farming aquatic food sources. Back at New Mexico State University, the same cottonseed byproducts used as biodiesel for campus vehicles are being recycled as literal fish food for shrimp at the university’s aquaculture demonstration facility. On a commercial scale, cottonseed byproducts could well prove the “missing link” for a fully closed, fully sustainable food system.
A Promising Future for an Old, Old Crop
This isn’t exactly cotton’s first rodeo. The crop has been around for thousands of years, and incorporated into a wide variety of American economic uses since before our nation was born. But thanks to cutting-edge technological advances and old-school American ingenuity, cotton looks set to open a productive new act.
Which part of cotton’s future are you most excited about?