Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Interview - Tom Wedegaertner, Director of Cottonseed Research at Cotton Incorporated

For the past 25 years, Tom Wedegaertner has been the Director of Cottonseed Research at Cotton Incorporated. Prior to that, he worked for a trade association representing the cottonseed processing industry. His career now spans 37 years of cottonseed industry involvement.

At Cotton Incorporated, he manages a research program designed to discover innovative ways to increase the utilisation and value of cottonseed, the number one byproduct of cotton production. The cotton plant actually produces more seed than it does fibre. The seed is an important source of revenue for cotton farmers, since it represents about 20 percent of the value of the crop. The biggest barrier to increasing the utilisation and value of cottonseed protein has always been the presence of a naturally occurring chemical defense mechanism that evolved in cotton and is distributed throughout the cotton plant.

This toxin is known as “gossypol” and it is toxic at some level to all animals and some insects. Tom has devoted much of his career to searching for a technology that would mitigate the toxic effects of gossypol. The genetic elimination of this toxin from cottonseed protein is now possible. This breakthrough technology has the potential to be a total game changer for both the cotton and aquaculture industries.

Growing up on a small livestock and rice farm, and having a butcher for a father, is what stimulated Tom’s passion for animal agriculture, whilst animals have always been a large part of his life. He holds graduate degrees in animal nutrition and marketing from Colorado State University and the University of Memphis. 


What is your background and when did you decide that agriculture/aquaculture was a field you wanted to work in?
Having grown up on a small farm and being around animals all my life, I have developed a passion for animal agriculture. Becoming an animal scientist just seemed like my destiny. Several years ago I became fascinated with saltwater reef aquariums and have maintained two tanks in my living room for more than 10 years. I also have a couple of boats and spend most of my free time boating, fishing or scuba diving. My transition from being an Animal Nutritionist to being an advocate for using cottonseed protein to extend fishmeal supplies in aquaculture feeds has been a natural progression of my career.

Was your education an important stepping-stone to the work you have ended up doing for Cotton Incorporated?
Absolutely! I had a Master of Science degree in animal nutrition and an MBA in marketing with 12 years of experience in the cottonseed industry 25 years ago when Cotton Incorporated went looking for a cottonseed expert to manage their cottonseed research and marketing program. I was a natural fit since the program I manage has both a research and marketing component. It is almost as though my educational background and experience were designed to prepare me for this job.

Do you believe GMOs are a safe and practical solution to feeding an ever-increasing population and improving living standards around the world?
Modern molecular biology (“GMO’s”) is an essential component to feeding more and more people on the planet. Food shortages in the future will also be the result of an improved standard of living in Third World countries. As people become more prosperous they want to add animal protein to their diet. Most land animals are very inefficient at converting plant protein to high-quality animal protein. Aquaculture species are very efficient at this conversion and can be grown just about anywhere in tanks, ponds and raceways. Aquaculture will be extremely important in our quest to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Using biotechnology to eliminate toxins, produce higher yields, extend shelf life and enhance the nutritional value of foods and feeds is quite simply the most important component of modern agriculture. Over the past two decades, GMO’s have demonstrated their utility, safety and value to society. I expect that we will soon see an explosion of GMO technologies that will have a direct positive effect on human health and nutrition.

How should we explain the benefits of science to consumers who are increasingly suspicious of advancements in food production, especially those that involve genetic engineering?
I usually start out by reminding people that biotechnology and molecular biology (“GMO’s”) are already widely used throughout the medical world to diagnose, treat and cure diseases. If a person can acknowledge that the use of GMO technology to treat and cure a disease is acceptable, then the exact same technology deserves some level of acceptance when it is used in modern agriculture to enhance the quality and availability of food. Even though the average person isn’t familiar with the science of modern agriculture, they should be willing to consider the use of modern scientific techniques to improve both medical tools and food products.

What impact do you believe a protein rich and readily digestible cottonseed meal will make to our food supply over the coming years?
The cotton crop on the planet produces 11 million metric tonnes (mmt) of protein every year. To give you a feel for the magnitude of this massive protein reserve consider this; if cottonseed didn’t contain gossypol, this is enough protein to provide the daily protein needs of 600 million people. This is also an equivalent amount of protein to 16mmt of fishmeal; about four times the amount of fishmeal currently produced. Cottonseed protein is somewhat unique in that most aquaculture species find it to be very palatable, especially compared to other vegetable proteins. It appears that cottonseed protein might even contain an unidentified feeding stimulant, and with added Lysine it has been shown to effectively replace fishmeal in feeds for several aquaculture species. Unfortunately, at the moment, the presence of gossypol relegates all this protein to cattle feed, since ruminants are the only animals that can tolerate the toxin. All of this is about to change!

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