Forty years ago, agronomist Norman Bourlag’s “Green Revolution” used improved seed and fertilizers to dramatically increase yields of grain crops, saving millions from starvation and earning him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, many in agriculture believe a second green revolution is under way, this one based on advances in biotechnology that will significantly increase food production while reducing farming’s environmental footprint.

To meet the nutrition needs of a world that adds 77 million more people each year, cotton may play an increasingly important role as a food crop, thanks to genetic advances that can produce cottonseed without the gossypol that makes it inedible for humans.

“Sustainability continues to influence key decisions in cotton research,” Drayton Mayers, president and chief executive officer of the Cotton Board, said at the annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at Memphis. “Cotton will play a key role as a sustainable choice for food and fiber production, as opposed to synthetic fibers that are produced from non-renewable petroleum.”

Although cotton production has declined substantially in the last few years in favor of grains, Mayers said the crop continues to be “an economic engine in thousands of communities across America,” and that its use as a high protein food source can only add to its importance.

SCGA members were shown a new video, “Cotton and the Second Green Revolution,” which details how researchers are not only improving fiber quality and yield, but developing ways to enhance its value as a food crop.

“It’s obviously the greatest source of fiber in the world,” Cotton Incorporated researcher Robert Nichols says in the video, “but there are products we can make for human consumption from cottonseed. We need to think more of cotton as a food plant.”

Keerti Rathore, plant biotechnologist, and his team at Texas A&M University, have developed a new variety of cotton that has no gossypol in the seed.

“Every year, the world produces about 44 million metric tons of cottonseed, which is equivalent to 10 million tons of protein,” he says. “People like the taste of cottonseed; many would much rather eat cottonseed than soybeans.”

Kater Hake, Cotton Incorporated vice president of agricultural research, says this will “expand the utility of cotton, not just for clothing people, feeding livestock, and producing cooking oil, but also as a major source of protein to feed people on a global basis.”

Other researchers are using sophisticated methods to learn more about the genetic makeup of cotton and other crops, seeking varieties that use less water and can grow in less favorable soils and environments — with substantial reductions in chemical use.

C.S. Prakash, plant molecular geneticist at Tuskeegee University, says “the biggest advance in cotton is how adaptation of these genetically engineered varieties has dramatically altered the way we grow cotton. We don’t use as much chemicals any more, and that has made a big difference.”

Alabama cotton grower Larkin Martin says, “We once sprayed four to six times a year for bollworms/budworms. Now we spray about .2 time a year.”

Thea Wilkins, molecular biologist at Texas Tech University, is leading a team with the goal of mapping of the entire cotton genome, to “find those genes that are most responsible for doing new things that will enable us to improve our health and well-being or way of life.”

And, she notes, “While synthetics use petroleum and abuse our resources, cotton is a biobased fiber — a renewable resource that is sustainable.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com