This new edible crop could feed millions, Texas A&M plant biotechnologist says.

By Tim Nelson
October 17, 2018
Photo by Australian Scenics via Getty Images

Cotton is a crucial plant with a complicated place in world history. These days, you’ll find it in everything from coffee filters to some of the clothes you’re wearing right now. And thanks to a recent scientific breakthrough, the fabric of our lives is something we may soon be eating as well.

That’s right, the US Department of Agriculture just gave preliminary approval for the commercialization of an edible form of cotton. But don’t just start munching on your t-shirts just yet: It won’t come from those big floofy cotton balls, but from cottonseed.

This USDA approval isn’t the result of someone finally having the gumption to eat cotton seeds, but years of biotech work by Texas A&M plant biotechnologist Dr. Keerti Rathore. He artificially introduced outside DNA to essentially eliminate gossypol—a naturally-occurring insect repellent that’s poisonous to humans and most animals—from cotton seeds while preserving it in the stems and leaves. The end result is a plant that’s both protected against pests and safe for human consumption.

It’s a big deal, because Rathore’s breakthrough could feed millions of people around the globe. His proprietary cotton plant is capable of producing 1.6 pounds of cotton seeds for every pound of cotton fiber produced. Given that the cotton seed is technically a tree nut similar to the almond or walnut, edible cotton could become a huge, sustainable, and economically-viable source of protein for livestock and humans.

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Rathore envisions a world where the already-versatile cotton crop could be used to address food shortages using existing agricultural space. “Such a product can also be important from the standpoint of sustainability because farmers will produce fiber, feed and food from the same crop,” he told Agrilife. “Our approach... not only improves its safety but also provides a novel means to meet the nutritional requirements of the burgeoning world population.”

Of course, there’s probably only one question on your mind right now: What the hell does cotton taste like? The answer is hummus. In a ringing endorsement of cottonseed’s culinary qualities, Rathore described the taste to Fortune as “not at all unpleasant.” So, it tastes like not unpleasant hummus.

Hold onto your hummus for now, however. While the USDA has signed off on this particularly useful form of GMO cotton, FDA approval is still forthcoming, and it will take at least a year or two before farmers can get seeds in the ground. But don’t be surprised if your clothes and your calories come from the same plant in the not-so-distant future.