Poison to Protein: The Case for Edible Cottonseed


The United States cotton production market generated 7 billion dollars in 2017, with cottonseed making up about 1 billion dollars of that amount. Although cottonseed accounts for nearly 14% of revenues earned by farmers, its value is limited by its toxicity. It has only a few end markets, namely the markets for cattle feed and cottonseed oil. Removing the toxin from the seed would increase the consumptive potential of cottonseed beyond ruminant animals or ultra-processed oils.

The project client, Cotton Incorporated, is an industry group that represents the interests of United States cotton farmers and importers. Cotton Incorporated has been researching Ultra low Gossypol Cottonseed (ULGCS), a seed variety with exceptionally low levels of the toxin gossypol, since the early 1990s. Cotton Incorporated now holds the exclusive rights to license the technology to produce ULGCS. If adopted globally, ULGCS varieties would produce 9.125 trillion grams of protein annually, enough to meet the daily protein needs of half a billion people. The ULGCS trait can also be added to high-yielding, pesticide-resistant seed varieties. ULGCS was deregulated in October 2019 by the USDA and deregulation from the FDA is pending.

ULGCS has the potential to transform aquaculture, pet food, and alternative snack and dairy markets and to deliver value to actors all along the cottonseed supply chain, including farmers and ginners, oil mills, seed companies, and food & feed companies. With ULGCS, farmers will be able to access a wide variety of higher-value markets, while seed companies could generate more revenue by charging a “technology fee” for seeds that include the ULGCS trait. Farther down the value chain, food and feed companies will benefit from this additional source of high-protein meal to serve as an input for various products. Beyond this, ULGCS may also be beneficial from a humanitarian and an environmental standpoint. In the humanitarian realm, ULGCS may serve as a protein source for malnourished populations worldwide. On the environmental front, ULGCS may be a sustainable feed for growing aquaculture operations, and an alternative to soy products, which contribute to deforestation.

This study relies on market research, industry expert interviews, and a life cycle assessment to understand the business outlook and potential environmental and social impacts of ULGCS. Findings suggest that the most promising end markets for ULGCS are aquaculture, pet food, and some human food products. In addition, while there is exciting market potential for ULGCS in international markets, strict GMO regulations in major cotton-producing countries such as India and China are currently prohibitive to expansion beyond the United States.

Recommendations include strategies for a business launch, funding access, and future areas of study. They include suggestions for additional economic modeling to understand how ULGCS will affect current cottonseed markets, as well as nutrition studies to explore the effects of ULGCS on human and animal performance. Lastly, targeted marketing and communications efforts supported by a dedicated ULGCS staffer will help build product demand across the value chain, from farmer to consumer. While barriers exist, we believe ULGCS offers a robust market opportunity for both cotton farmers and the aquaculture, pet food, and human food markets.





Carmody, Allison, Jia Jiang, Rebecca Marx and Shannon Thoits (2019). Poison to Protein: The Case for Edible Cottonseed. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/18431.

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.