Farmers around the world grow peanuts because the plant adapts to poor soils and produces a crop even as droughts become more common. Peanuts are shelf-stable, nutritious, don’t require expensive fertilizer and people like to eat them. Smallholder farmers around the world grow the crop on modest plots and cook the nuts into traditional dishes or sell the crop for money to send their kids to school.
To leverage the power of this unique crop, the U.S. government partners with the University of Georgia to solve problems faced by farmers. On April 12, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and UGA announced a five-year extension of their collaborative research and outreach work in peanut innovation.
The $15 million grant from USAID will allow the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut, which is headquartered in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), to scale up the findings from previous research and get the technology into farmers’ fields.
“We are so pleased that USAID has chosen to continue their funding of the Peanut Innovation Lab for another five years, ” said CAES Dean and Director Nick T. Place. “Our mission in CAES is to support the creation of sustainable food systems both here and abroad – the important work done through this program is a critical part of that mission and we are excited to see what results come out of the Peanut Innovation Lab during this next funding cycle.”
About the Peanut Innovation Lab
While UGA has hosted international peanut research for decades, the Peanut Innovation Lab embarked on the most recent round of projects in 2018. The lab has managed two dozen research projects led by UGA scientists as well as researchers at a dozen other U.S. universities, including Virginia Tech, North Carolina State University, Penn State, Texas Tech, University of California-Santa Barbara and others.
Many of the research findings apply throughout the world, including here in the U.S., but the field work is performed in Senegal and Ghana in Western Africa, and Uganda and Malawi in Eastern and Southern Africa.
Some of the lab’s research involves making stronger peanut plants — varieties that can survive disease or drought — and other studies focus on creating small machines or educational programs to help farmers and processors, designing products to bring the nutritional benefits of peanuts to consumers, or understanding the gender and age dynamics that lead farmers to make the decisions that they do.
Tobacco and training
Malawi, a small landlocked country in southern Africa, is making a major transition. Once the second-most tobacco-dependent economy in the world, Malawi is diversifying its crop production. As tobacco declines, a fragile industry supporting tens of thousands of smallholder farmers is learning to handle a healthier alternative, peanuts.
Working with companies, local universities and the Malawian government, the Innovation Lab has helped to build the value chain for peanuts. In 2021, 10,000 farmers received improved seed and science-based training, resulting in higher yield and a better-quality harvest.
Across Africa, it’s common for women to grow, harvest and sell peanuts, making the crop an important source of household income as well as food. The Peanut Innovation Lab considers how the dynamics of gender and youth impact biological research (such as creating a new plant variety), but also investigates specific questions about gender and youth to understand decision-making among women farmers and how greater profitability in peanut farming may take that source of revenue away from women.
This research helps to explain why women might not use a particular time-saving technology or why young people choose careers outside of agriculture. It also helps to ensure that women and young people aren’t left out as agriculture becomes a more profitable enterprise.
“In Malawi over the next few years, we hope to evaluate a GALS (Gender Action Learning System) method that uses principles of gender inclusion to improve household communication, income, and food security,” said Jessica Marter-Kenyon, the Peanut Innovation Lab’s gender specialist. “Crop diversification provides a unique opportunity to test and develop these programs to ensure women have as much opportunity to benefit as the men in their households.”
Plant diseases continue to pose major problems for farmers around the world, particularly in places where herbicides and pesticides aren’t affordable. Finding genes that make the plant naturally resistant to disease is the most cost effective and environmentally sustainable solution for the farmer. Sometimes it’s the only tool to control a disease.
Researchers in UGA’s Wild Peanut Lab are creating varieties from relatives of the cultivated peanut. Those wild cousins have genetic strengths that the domesticated peanut lost, so by breeding the two and selecting the right offspring, plant breeders can get a variety that has all the traits consumers want, like flavor, with the disease resistance farmers need.
By working with the Peanut Innovation Lab, the Wild Peanut Lab has been able to partner with plant breeders from across Africa to test out varieties made from the wild species.
“The Peanut Innovation Lab has created a solid network of breeders and basic researchers throughout East, West and Southern African countries. With this network, we are able to disseminate information and materials to be tested in these different countries in a systematic way,” said Soraya Leal-Bertioli, who leads the Wild Peanut Lab with her husband, David Bertioli. “We feel that the Wild Peanut Lab’s mission of expanding peanut genetic diversity for food security in Africa is now an attainable goal.”
To learn more about how the Peanut Innovation Lab applies innovative science to improve peanut production and use, raise nutritional awareness, and increase food safety and gender parity around the world, visit ftfpeanutlab.caes.uga.edu