Cotton is mostly seed, really; the fibers of the plant, which we use for textiles, grow outwards from the seed itself. For every pound of that fiber, you end up with 1.6 pounds of cottonseeds. A newly USDA-approved variety of genetically modified cotton might give us a whole lot more use for those seeds.
Despite being more than half of the weight of the harvested cotton crop, the seeds only earn about 15 percent of its total revenue. That’s mostly due to a yellow substance called gossypol, which is naturally toxic and present in the seeds as a sort of pest deterrent. (Interestingly, the Chinese government researched using gossypol as a male contraceptive; it worked, but way too well, and also poisoned everyone who tried it.)
Because of the presence of gossypol, the seeds can only be used in a few ways. They can be fed to cows, which don’t seem to mind it, or they can be processed into cottonseed oil, with the gossypol chemically removed.
This is sort of a bummer, because the seeds are actually pretty nutritious, otherwise. They’re low in starch and high in protein and fat. (Cotton is loosely related to cacao; the seeds look similar.)
Researchers from Texas A&M University figured out a way to insert a gene into the cotton plant that changes the way it produces gossypol. Instead of loading up the whole plant, the new modified cotton plants keep the gossypol in the leaves (where it can still deter pests) but keep it out of the seeds, leaving them gossypol-free (or nearly so, anyway; they’re safe to eat). This week, reports NPR, the USDA gave the green light for anyone to grow this new strain of cotton, and potentially get much more use out of the millions of tons of seeds the cotton crop produces each year.