Ever thought about sitting down to a succulent dinner of steak, fries and cotton? Few have, but edible cotton may be on the horizon, significantly increasing the overall value of a cotton plant and a cotton crop.

The price of cotton is good today, but growers remember recent times when the prospect of planting a crop wasn’t so rosy. If edible cotton can increase the value of cotton as livestock feed, or more dramatically for human use, price stability and rural economic growth could be beneficial to farmers and rural economies across the Cotton Belt.

Janet Reed, with Cotton Incorporated, says edible cotton isn’t so far-fetched and may be much more versatile than most believe as a food product. Once gossypol is removed from the seed of cotton, it can be safely eaten by humans and livestock.

Speaking at a recent North Carolina agriculture and biotechnology meeting, Reed says, cotton seed — the bioengineered kernels — can be roasted and salted. Researchers also are looking at ways of using cottonseed in combination with wheat and corn flours to enrich the protein content of these products.

Though cottonseed containing gossypol for human consumption has some potentially dangerous possibilities, few doubt these seeds are packed with protein and potentially a source of feeding millions of people worldwide.

Reed says current cotton production would provide enough cottonseed to provide the daily protein needs of more than 500 million people worldwide. That potential is somewhere in the future. Currently, researchers are developing enough plants to grow edible cotton in field testing.

For a world population that is expected to top 8.5 billion within the next decade and a half, any hope of low-cost, plentiful protein is reason to be optimistic. The demand by growing middle classes in developing countries for meat products is another reason to push development of cottonseed edible to a wider range of livestock animals.

By reducing the gossypol content of cottonseed, via biotechnology, it is feasible that cottonseed usage as livestock feed could be significantly expanded and possibly put cottonseed on the menu for human consumption.

Gossypol is a commonly occurring chemical in cotton. It has developed over time as a defense mechanism that helps the cotton plant survive a multitude of production challenges.

Gossypol, which primarily protects cotton from insect damage, is a toxin that can cause heart damage in livestock and potentially in humans. It accumulates in tiny pockets on cottonseed and leaves. Researchers have produced cotton without the pockets, technically glands, but insect damage has been too great to make these varieties practical for growers.