Leave it to a university in one of America’s highest, driest regions to pioneer a watery new use for the versatile cottonseed. According to late-breaking reports from researchers at New Mexico State University, cottonseed byproducts may soon find their way into large-scale aquaculture operations. Their use? Fish food — or, more accurately, shrimp food.
How does a plant that loves dry, often marginal lands become a critical component in eco-friendly aquaculture systems? To answer that question, we’ll need to peer under the hood of modern aquaculture and explore what makes cotton a great option for large-scale food production operations.
Cotton isn’t typically thought of as a food product, and for good reason. Its most valuable product, by far, is the dense yet fluffy fibers contained in its signature bolls. Those fibers find their way into everything from blue jeans to finely woven cotton sheets.
But cotton’s seed — cottonseed — is most definitely edible. It’s super high in protein, far outstripping competing seeds and nuts. And cottonseed oil is the preferred frying and dressing agent for thousands of discerning home and commercial cooks.
Unfortunately, unprocessed cottonseed contains a natural pesticide called gossypol. Humans shouldn’t ingest gossypol in large quantities, so cottonseed’s proteinaceous seeds have long been off-limits as an ingredient in “people food.”
Thanks to a recent breakthrough that silences the genes responsible for gossypol production, that’s about to change.
How Cottonseed Fits into Modern Aquaculture
Aquaculture is a closed or semi-closed system that produces fish and other aquatic food products in sustainable, eco-friendly fashion. Although aquaculture configurations vary widely, most require a stable source of energy and protein. Because it’s so rich in protein and healthy fats, cottonseed is an ideal aquaculture feed.
That’s why New Mexico State University’s farm research program is doubling down on its commitment to cottonseed cultivation. NMSU’s aquaculture tanks are steadily producing healthy shrimp (at 5,000 feet above sea level, but that’s a whole other story), sold in the same head-on form as you’d find in your local seafood store. Cottonseed-fed shrimp require far fewer energy inputs than fishmeal-fed fish, the “status quo” aquaculture crop in the United States. That makes for a more eco-friendly aquaculture arrangement — and a great second life for thousands of tons of cottonseed byproducts.
“Commercial aquaculture feeds contain fishmeal, so they’re not as sustainable as a plant-based protein, because they’re basically taking fish from the ocean and making a meal out of that, and then feeding it to another fish,” says Tracey Carrillo, NMSU’s assistant director of campus farm operations. “We chose shrimp because they’re several times more efficient at converting that protein to an edible product.”
The Aquaculture Revolution Is Coming
Even if you never run or work at an aquaculture operation, you’re likely to reap the rewards of this emerging eco-friendly alternative to traditional fish production. And cottonseed byproducts could soon become an integral part of that equation. Are you looking forward to the coming aquaculture revolution?