Exploring Future Uses for Peanuts: Q&A With Dr. Nino Brown

peanut plantMay 29, 2024

This story was originally published in PQ 49.

Peanut production in the U.S. is skyrocketing, so putting future peanut crops to good use will take new and innovative approaches and requires attention now to set farmers and the industry up for success. Dr. Nino Brown of the University of Georgia is a peanut breeder looking into developing new and improved peanut varieties like high-oleic and high-oil-content peanuts. These varieties are being created to allow for new uses of peanuts to be introduced.

NPB: Tell us about the research you do.

BROWN: I’m a peanut breeder at the University of Georgia, and my job is to develop new and improved peanut varieties that meet the needs of growers, shellers, manufacturers and consumers. In the pursuit of developing new and improved peanut varieties, we need to understand the underlying genetics that control our traits of interest, such as improved oil content, disease resistance, yield or quality. So, we also do quite a bit of research to understand the underlying genetics, map the location of genes and develop DNA markers that we can use to improve our breeding efficiency.

nino brown in a peanut field

NPB: What is the demand for high-oleic and high-oil-content peanuts?

BROWN: Currently, cultivars with high-oleic fatty acid percentages are grown on 20 to 25% of peanut acres. These high-oleic peanuts have improved shelf life, so they are grown primarily for the roasted snack and candy trade, whereas the bulk of peanuts grown in the southeastern U.S. are “normal” oleic peanuts and will be used in peanut butter.

Regarding high-oil-content peanuts, we don’t currently have a Southeast-adapted variety that is grown specifically for oil production. However, there is a great deal of interest from growers and industry stakeholders to take part in the global peanut oil market, which is quite large. Countries like China and India crush most of their domestic and imported peanuts for oil. In the U.S., there is increasing demand for healthy cooking oils, excellent potential for biofuel production from peanut oil, and even the potential for peanut oil-based plastics. Growing peanuts specifically for oil production could have a positive effect on the prices growers receive by increasing demand both for edible peanuts and peanuts for oil.

NPB: What is the process for developing these new varieties like?

BROWN: Development of new, high-oil peanut varieties is similar to our current methods. The breeding process all starts with cross-pollination between two unique parental varieties or germplasm lines. These parents usually have beneficial or complementary traits that the breeder wishes to combine. For instance, we might be trying to combine high oil content from a peanut germplasm line developed in India, with a cultivar bred for Georgia with high yield potential and a high level of disease resistance. After we make that cross-pollination, we evaluate the progeny for several years. We visually select plants that appear high-yielding, have good disease resistance, good shelling characteristics and also exhibit high oil percentages. This means that we visually inspect these individual plants throughout the growing season. Then we harvest the good ones individually, shell them individually, measure their shelling characteristics, measure oil content of the seeds from each plant, and discard those that don’t meet our desired specifications. We will do this to several hundred plants each year, in addition to thousands more that we are simultaneously evaluating for other breeding objectives each year.

After a few years of individual plant evaluations, when we have identified a few plants that exhibit the required high oil content and also high yield and adaptation in the Southeast, we will begin increasing seed supply and testing the lines in replicated yield trials at several locations across the state and region. After 3-5 years of replicated yield and quality testing, the improved germplasm line or cultivar will be released. Cultivars will be distributed to growers for large-scale production, whereas improved germplasm lines will be used primarily by other breeders to improve oil content within their breeding programs. The whole process can take 10-15 years from initial cross to commercialization of a new peanut variety. There are a few tricks we can use to accelerate that process and bring it down to 8-10 years, but breeding is a long process that requires significant levels of investment in time and resources.

NPB: What do growers/industry need to know/be prepared for?

BROWN: I want to stress it will take time before we have a high-oil-content peanut variety that can be profitably grown in the Southeast, which has notoriously high levels of tomato-spotted wilt virus, late-leaf spot, white mold and nematodes. We will push hard to get these varieties out as soon as possible using winter nurseries and greenhouses for accelerated generation times. We’re leveraging cutting-edge technologies to make this happen as quickly as possible. Additionally, high-oil peanut varieties will likely require another level of peanut segregation at buying points and shelling facilities. The logistics of incorporating non-food use peanuts into the industry pipeline will take careful consideration.

NPB: What non-edible uses do you see being created in the future?

BROWN: Peanut oil makes an excellent cooking oil with a long fry life, so increased market penetration for cooking oil is a no-brainer. Peanut oil also has excellent potential as a biofuel. With current peanut oil levels of 45-50% — and breeders reaching for 60% or more — peanuts can produce about 50% more oil per acre than soybeans (1). The oil can also be used in the development of bio-based plastics. The meal that is left after crushing is high in protein and is an excellent poultry feed. Coming from a state that produces a great deal of both peanuts and poultry, there’s a lot of opportunity there for synergy.

Overall, the opportunities for non-edible use peanuts are very promising and have the potential to further build upon the powerful peanut’s sustainability story. We will continue to work on breeding for higher oil content alongside our normal breeding activities to satisfy this emerging market and our existing market needs.

(1) Soybeans have an oil level of 18%.

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