Peanut Innovation Lab Takes Multi-Pronged Approach to Improve Productivity
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut works with scientists at a dozen universities in the U.S. and 22 international universities, national agriculture programs and the private sector abroad to improve the productivity and profitability of smallholder farmers and increase the supply of healthy peanuts available to consumers.
Started in 2018, the current five-year Innovation Lab builds on previous USAID supported peanut collaborative research programs dating back to the 1980s. Headquartered at the University of Georgia in Athens, the most recent portfolio has put particular emphases on fostering collaboration between international partners and on addressing gender and youth as a cross-cutting consideration across all research projects.
Within the portfolio of projects, a multi-pronged approach involves genomics research to develop improved varieties; field trials to find practices that adapt to climate shocks and pests; nutritional studies to find the health benefits of peanuts; and gender and youth projects to understand the roles and constraints women and youth have in the value chain.
When a team of geneticists announced they had completed mapping of the peanut genome in 2019, the scientific community celebrated. The Peanut Innovation Lab now is taking that knowledge and putting it to work to better understand existing varieties and create new ones.
A collective of peanut breeders from nine countries across Africa submitted hundreds of samples of peanut varieties grown in their regions to be genotyped. With a better understanding of the genetic diversity across Africa, breeders selected a core set of 300 lines representing that diversity and are growing these in field trials to identify traits that will contribute to resiliency and improved characteristics.
At the same time, other variety development projects are looking at wild relatives of peanut and, through multiple cycles of backcrossing and screening for favorable traits, incorporating them into cultivated peanut; and several projects are using high throughput phenotyping tools to more efficiently identify desired traits in peanut.
Bringing together the research findings from previous programs, production packages for Malawi and Ghana help farmers decide what varieties to plant, how often to weed or apply limited inputs and when to harvest. Understanding the relationship between decisions like planting density and harvest date to overall yield helps farmers allocate their limited time and resources to maximize yield.
One of the value-added gains projects is investigating the alternative hosts for groundnut rosette virus, a disease that plagues peanut fields in Africa, helping to create effective disease control practices.
Another innovative project increases the density of native shrubs in Senegalese peanut fields. The shrubs might seem like a weed stealing nutrients and moisture, but actually benefit surrounding plants (when properly managed) by drawing up water from deep underground, reducing soil temperatures and adding organic material to the soil.
Peanut is an inexpensive source of high-quality plant protein and is an important part of the traditional diet in much of the world.
Teams in the US and Ghana are creating and testing a peanut-based school snack to assess the cognitive improvement in school children who consume the snack during the school day.
In Uganda, public health scientists are evaluating the effects of daily peanut consumption of the gut health and growth of school-aged students.
Gender and Youth
Peanut is known as a woman’s crop in much of the world, making it even more vital to understand women’s time poverty, the gender dynamics of household decisions, and access to information, land, and capital, among other considerations.
Projects in Ghana and Senegal work to better understand women’s lives so that interventions and policies can be tailored to them. Also in Ghana, researchers are testing the complex aggregator system to see if incentives for high quality peanuts will flow back to the farmer and allow her to invest in farming and drying nuts properly.
Two projects are chronicling the challenges and opportunities for young people to participate in peanut production and marketing. Researchers in Uganda are using an innovation technique termed photovoice where photos taken by youth are used to identify opportunities for youth engagement along the value chain, and in Senegal researchers are exploring climatic and land-tenure constraints to youth participation in the peanut value chain.