Thursday, March 13, 2008

While cheap, cotton oil comes at a high cost in Mali

In Mali, cotton oil sells for half the price of imported cooking oils. However, there’s a stitch for one of West Africa’s largest cotton producers: It’s been found that local oil processors lack the equipment to remove a toxin gossypol from the oil. The BBC reported that government has temporarily shuttered 80 small-scale cotton pressers, leaving only 16 in business. They also launched a public information campaign on the present dangers of cotton oil.

The government has also been working on a new system to better track where and when locally produced oil is made.

From BBC:

"What we're working towards is that all producers in Mali will have a certain transparency, so you can see the date it was made, the factory it was made in, and with what sort of water they made it.

"With these rules I can give you a guarantee," says [Head of Ministry of Industry, Adama] Konate.

"So it's necessary that the consumer demands that the products they buy have a degree of transparency."

The real solution, Mr Konate feels, would be for Mali to start refining sunflower, sesame and groundnut seeds to make cheap cooking oil at home without the dangers of cotton seed oil.

The choice is yours
Gossypol, according to a paper by Matt Poore and Glenn M. Rogers at the North Carolina State University, is a natural toxin used to protect the cotton plants by slowing down reproduction rates of insects. Cattle, which can detoxify gossypol much more effectively than poultry, will develop heart damage and heart failure if they overeat cotton meal over a long period of time.

But we’re talking humans here. According to a story in, Chinese researchers have been on to the effects of cotton (really, gossypol) on male fertility since the 1920s. Five decades later, they conducted a ten-year study involving 8,000 men that found that those taking a daily gossypol pill had regular contraception along the lines of female contractive pills without a change in libido.

But side effects were found. Low levels of potassium, a disease called hypoklemia, were found between 1 and 10 percent of the subjects. This disease is mostly found with people with very poor functioning kidneys. (However, one Brazilian scientist argued that the Chinese diet is naturally poor in potassium.) Nonetheless, gossypol is a known toxin and its chances at becoming an “herbal” substitute for vasectomy are very slim.

It has also tumor inhibitors capabilities, making gossypol a candidate as a cancer drug. It also contains anti-malarial properties.

So, what needs to happen?
People have long heated cotton seeds to extremely high temperatures (about 230 – 260 Fahrenheit) and added hexane and two other solvents, which extracts the gossypol. The story doesn't say, but either the producers weren't bringing the cotton seed up to proper temperatures or they didn't have the proper chemicals to do the extraction.

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