The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved a genetically modified (GM) cotton that’s high in protein for human consumption. Developed by scientists at Texas A&M’s AriLife Research department, the GM crop is hoped to help meet the basic protein requirements of over 500 million people around the world.
Using a technique known as RNA-interference, or RNA-i, researchers have been able to silence the gene responsible for producing gossypol – an effective pesticide produced by cotton plants, but toxic to humans and many animals – in the seeds of the plant. By silencing the gene in just the seeds, the rest of the plant still produces gossypol to protect against insects and cotton fibres remain unaffected, while the seed becomes palatable for humans. According to Keerti Rathore, a scientist leading this project, the seed tastes a bit like chickpeas.
Diversifying global protein sources and reducing crop waste are two of the Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use outlined in the latest global report from the Food and Land Use Coalition. The GM cotton seed could help in both of these transitions, providing a plant-based protein from a by-product of a crop that is already widely grown. The seed can also be used as feed which could help increase the sustainability of livestock farming.
However, views on GM crops remain controversial. While the States is the world’s largest grower of commercial GM crops and their supermarket foods have featured GM ingredients since 1990s, much of the rest of the world has divisive opinions on consuming GM foods. In response to such concerns, Rathore said, "Yes, we are fully aware of the resistance to GMOs in many countries, but I remain hopeful that countries who are desperate for food will adopt this technology."
This raises questions over where GM crops belong in a sustainable food system – do they belong there and, if so, do they deserve to be seen as a “desperate” alternative?