Growing 1500 Types of Peanuts

Randall Weiseman Field Crops, Florida, Georgia, Peanuts

More than 1,500 kinds of peanut plants are growing at the University of Florida’s Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. And as Tyron Spearman reports, the crop is part of USDA’s germplasm network to maintain and research different types of one of the world’s most popular and nutritional legumes.

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From the University of Florida/IFAS:

CITRA, Fla. — Stretching out in a North Central Florida field, under the scorching summer sun, lies row upon row of lush, green peanut plants – with more than 1,500 kinds growing at the University of Florida’s Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. The crop is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s germplasm network to maintain and research different types of one of the world’s most popular and nutritional legumes.

“Nobody had done a side-by-side study of yield, grade, biochemical components and genetic background of these peanut varieties,” said Greg MacDonald, a weed scientist and agronomist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who oversees the project. “We put together this study and we’re now able to determine those things for each plant line.”

On Thursday, more than 50 national and international peanut scientists and researchers will tour the fields and review the varieties to determine if there are any they would like to try in their areas. For instance, if someone from an African country only gets three months of rain, that grower would need a peanut plant that can survive and make a harvestable crop with a limited amount of rain.

Through their peanut research, MacDonald and his team work with farmers in Haiti, some of whom will be on Thursday’s tour. Their work there is part of The Feed the Future Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The project works with an organization called Meds and Foods For Kids, which uses locally grown peanuts to produce what’s known as a “ready to use therapeutic food,” a fortified peanut paste that’s been formulated to provide all of a child’s basic nutritional needs. It comes in a plastic packet and can be squeezed directly into a starving child’s mouth. Three servings a day can save the child’s life. Products like this are desperately needed; the science journal The Lancet reported that 3.1 million children worldwide died from starvation in 2011 – that’s one child every 10 seconds.

“The ready-to-use therapeutic food is shown to reverse the effects of malnourishment in a short amount of time,” said MacDonald, who spent part of his summer in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Another major part of MacDonald’s work is helping to find disease-resistant cultivars — he is battling aflatoxin, a poisonous compound produced by molds found in peanuts. Human consumption of aflatoxin has been associated with liver cancer, immune suppression and childhood stunting. He is also trying to try to stave off what happened in the 1990s, when tomato spotted wilt virus threatened the majority of runner peanuts, which are used to make peanut butter.

“We were seeing 30 to 40 percent reductions in yield,” he said, adding that one old variety collected in the 1950s from South America was found to be resistant to the virus. “Most all the runners now can be traced back to that one line, which is one of the reasons we maintain the collection.”

For growers and peanut researchers, MacDonald’s work is invaluable. This research is a joint effort between UF/IFAS agronomy and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, involving Noelle Barkley and Corley Holbrook, along with Barry Tillman, a UF/IFAS agronomy associate professor. Support for this research has been provided by The Peanut Foundation, the Georgia Peanut Commission and the Florida Peanut Producers Association.

“The work Dr. MacDonald and his associate are doing at the Plant Science Research and Education Center in Citra is extremely valuable to the peanut industry here in Florida, in the nation and, really, around the world,” said Ken Barton, president of the Florida Peanut Producers Association. “To maintain the germplasm collection is extremely important work.”

See a video on the peanut germplasm collection at: