MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Farmers grow cotton for the fluffy white fibers that get woven into T-shirts and into sheets. The plants also make seeds, but they are poisonous - at least to humans. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a new kind of cotton, one that's been genetically engineered so the seeds are safe to eat. Inventors think it could become a source of food for millions of people. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Cotton plants make a lot of seeds. Every pound of cotton lint or fiber comes with 1 1/2 pounds of seeds.
GREG HOLT: So you're getting more cottonseed than you are lint.
CHARLES: This is Greg Holt. He's in charge of research on cotton processing at a USDA center in Lubbock, Texas. Each seed is the size of a small peanut. And in principle, it could be nutritious. It's got oil, lots of protein. The problem is cotton plants have little dark glands in their leaves and their seeds containing something called gossypol.
HOLT: Gossypol in and of itself is a toxin.
CHARLES: It's helpful for the cotton plant - helps protect it from insects - but it means people cannot eat that seed; most animals can't either. There are limited options for cottonseed - 40 million tons of it all around the world.
HOLT: Seed can go one or two directions. You're either going to the dairy industry, or you're going to the oil mill.
CHARLES: Cows don't mind gossypol. Their digestive systems can handle it. And the oil mills are set up to crush the seed and then purify the oil so you can use it in human food. But Keerti Rathore wanted to expand those options, make a cotton plant with seeds that people can eat right out of the field. He started working on this 23 years ago when he arrived at Texas A&M University.
KEERTI RATHORE: This was my first project, and hopefully, it's coming to an end and good conclusion.
CHARLES: Rathore inserted a new piece of DNA into the cotton plant. In the plant's seeds, it turned off a key gene.
RATHORE: That gene, if it's active, is responsible for producing gossypol.
CHARLES: And it worked. The seeds of this genetically engineered plant have no gossypol. They're safe to eat. Cut them open and they even look different - no little dark glands. Researchers at Texas A&M tested the plants in greenhouses and small field plots, also roasted a few and ate them. Rathore says they taste like chickpeas. And this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave this cotton a green light. Anybody in the U.S. can grow them. Before the seeds can be sold as food or feed, though, they'll need approval from the FDA. If that happens, all kinds of doors will open. Cottonseed can go into chicken feed, protein bars. Rathore's real goal, though, is to see it growing in places like India where he grew up, where a lot of people aren't eating well.
RATHORE: A lot of these countries that do suffer from malnutrition are also cotton producers. So I think those countries will benefit much more from this technology.
CHARLES: Texas A&M is already talking to seed companies that could breed the new genetic trait into cotton varieties that they sell to farmers - possibly all over the world. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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