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US regulators on Friday gave the green light for genetically modified cotton to be used for human consumption, paving the way for a protein-packed new food source - edible cottonseed that tastes a bit like chickpeas - that its developers said could help tackle global malnutrition.

The Food and Drug Administration's decision on the cotton plant developed by Texas A&M University scientists means it is allowed as food for people and all types of animals.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant biotechnologist Keerti Rathore said the scientists are holding discussions with companies and hope to have the plant commercially available within about five years. Rathore said the team also will explore seeking regulatory approval in other countries starting with Mexico.

"Yes, we are fully aware of the resistance to GMOs in many countries, but I remain hopeful that counties who are desperate for food will adopt this technology," Rathore added.

Cotton is grown in more than 80 countries, with its fiber used to make textiles and cottonseed currently used among other purposes to feed animals such as cattle and sheep that have multiple stomach chambers. Ordinary cottonseed is unfit for humans and many animals to eat because it contains high levels of gossypol, a toxic chemical.

Rathore's team used so-called RNAi, or RNA interference, technology to "silence" a gene, virtually eliminating gossypol from the cottonseed. Gossypol was left at natural levels in the rest of the plant because it guards against insects and disease.

"With adoption of this technology, cotton becomes a dual-purpose crop. It requires no additional effort on the part of farmers or inputs or land for cultivation. So, it will make cotton farming more sustainable," Rathore said.

The genetic modification does not affect the plant's fiber for use in textiles.

The US Agriculture Department last year lifted the regulatory prohibition on cultivation by farmers of the modified cotton plant ahead of the FDA decision on human consumption.

Copyright Reuters, 2019

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