With USDA/ARS' Southern Regional Research Center at New Orleans back in operation after Hurricane Katrina, cotton and cottonseed research projects there should be getting back on track.

“Staff were due to return to the facility and resume work at the end of July,” Ed King, director of USDA/ARS research for the Mid-South region at Stoneville, Miss., said at the joint meeting of the Delta Council Ginning and Cotton Quality Improvement Committee and the Southern Cotton Ginners Association.

“We have a very substantial cotton research program there, with a considerable amount of work in cottonseed, cottonseed oil, and crop oils in general.”

Cotton genomics and breeding research programs are located at the Stoneville facility, as is the cotton ginning research laboratory.

“We're in the process of recruiting for a new leader at the ginning lab to replace Stanley Anthony, who retired in January,” King said. “Rick Byler is serving as interim leader and maintaining our research continuity.”

There are a number of challenges and opportunities facing the cottonseed market, he noted.

Newer varieties in recent years have smaller seed size, “and value to ginners for ginning cotton has declined. This seems to be more a genetics issue.”

While there are some things that can be done, he said, the overriding question is, “Since yields have gone up as seed have become smaller, will growers be willing to sacrifice yield in order to get larger seed?”

Smaller seed size has also resulted in more damage to the seed coat during the ginning process, King said, which causes a loss in quality for both feed and oil use.

“This strikes me as an engineering problem, and Rick Byler and his ginning lab group are looking at what can be done in the ginning process to reduce the amount of damage.”

The dairy industry's desire to have fuzzy white cottonseed for milk production is also a concern, he said, as is consumer pressures to reduce trans-fats in processed foods.

The latter “was really highlighted by Frito-Lay's decision to substitute sunflower oil for cottonseed oil in frying their chips. They used about 50 percent of U.S. cottonseed oil, so that was a huge loss for the industry.”

King said the sunflower industry “was somewhat farsighted in pursuing that market by making a conscious effort to develop germplasm that would produce oil with improved cooking qualities, but would not result in the hydrogenation that produces trans-fatty acids.”

While cottonseed oil normally has little or no trans-fatty acid, they can occur in the hydrogenation process. “We're addressing this,” he said, “and feel there are opportunities for non-hydrogenated cottonseed oil for food processing and other uses.”

The distiller's dried grains (DDGs) produced in the corn-to-ethanol process and the government's subsidization of ethanol production have had a negative impact on the value of cottonseed, King said.

“This is providing a cheap feed for cattle and other animals, even though DDGs aren't equivalent to cottonseed in protein and other nutrients.”

Gossypol content in cottonseed continues to be a limiting factor in feeding seed and meal to ruminant animals, he said. “We're addressing this issue at the New Orleans center, and we've made progress in identifying which forms of gossypol are toxic and less toxic. If we can get the gossypol out, we can increase the value of cottonseed.”

One of the most important recent accomplishments of ARS cottonseed research, King said, was development of a process to separate the two optical forms of gossypol.

“The separation of these compounds has allowed researchers to show that one of the forms appears to be more toxic to animals, but that both forms are equally inhibitory to insects. As a result of this work, efforts are now under way to breed cotton lines containing gossypol mostly in the less toxic form.”

There are also some potential uses for gossypol in the pharmaceutical industry, he noted.

The New Orleans center is also working on ways to improve the marketability of cottonseed-based oil products, and on research to improve processing technology and reduce processing costs, King said.

“Also, we're researching new uses for cottonseed oil and meal, and are working to develop value-added uses for the novel compounds found within cottonseed.”

The ARS budget for all phases of cotton research in the Mid-South area is $23.5 million, King said, supporting research that ranges from molecular biology to dyeing, finishing, spinning, and weaving.

“These dollars have been sustained and grown over the years largely due to support from the Delta Council, National Cotton Council, and other organizations, and our congressional delegation.

“We're constantly reassessing our programs to make sure they're relevant. We aren't interested in esoteric research, but rather we try to focus on problems and solutions.”