What Ben Franklin’s Bifocals and Peanut Breeding Have in Common

Peanut farmers care about continuous improvement of peanuts by funding precision breeding research.

As American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin grew older, he had trouble seeing both up-close and at a distance through his glasses. Getting tired of switching between two types of glasses, he devised an improvement on the traditional spectacles—and bifocal lenses were born.  

There’s always room for improvement and progress; not only in the necessities we use every day, but also for the agricultural crops we grow and the foods we eat.

Peanut farmers care about and invest in research for continuous improvement in the peanuts they plant and harvest each season. Since 2012, peanut industry groups and farmers have collaborated on the International Peanut Genome Initiative (IPGI), an intensive project dedicated to mapping the genetic code of the peanut.

What difference does knowledge of the peanut’s genetic code make? For the first time, scientists have a huge roadmap of the peanut’s DNA sequence, allowing for discoveries of beneficial genes in peanuts and then naturally breeding desired genes to create new peanut varieties. Scientists have the capability to improve virtually anything that is genetically determined by the peanut plant—all without using any GMO techniques.

Now, peanut farmers, through the National Peanut Board, have allocated the first of four annual contributions of $200,000 to start applying the knowledge of the peanut’s DNA to breed (naturally and precisely) new peanut varieties.

Of course, conventional breeding techniques, where a breeder takes one set of genes from peanut plant A and crosses it with peanut plant B to get, for example, better resistance to crop stressors, has been practiced for a long time. Precision breeding builds on this process created by nature to breed peanut varieties in less time and with greater precision. Now that breeders know the genetic sequence of the peanut, they can look into what those specific genes do.

Precision breeding will lead to improved nutrition, better flavor, drought tolerance, less aflatoxin, lower costs and better disease resistance for farmers. The peanuts of tomorrow can be even tastier, hardier and more sustainable than they are today. Here’s why continuous improvement through precision breeding is important for farmers and for us:

Sustainability keeps getting better. Peanuts are already more water-efficient than other popular nuts. It takes 4.8 gallons of water to produce one ounce of peanuts, while it takes about 80 gallons of water to produce one ounce of almonds. Peanuts also have a shrinking water footprint because of their specific growing regions (less than half of peanut fields use irrigation), small plant structure and underground growth. 

Yield goes up. Precision breeding will allow scientists to develop varieties that produce higher peanut yield on the same amount of land. The national average yield for peanuts from 2014 to 2018 is 21 percent higher than 10 years ago. Precision breeding is key to keeping these upward yield trends rising.

Price goes down. Costs of producing peanuts are lowered. It’s a fundamental economic principle that when supply (higher peanut yield) exceeds demand, prices fall. This directly benefits consumers and families everywhere.

Precision breeding can improve drought resistance and will help deal with water scarcity and allow farmers to use water even more efficiently. Breeders can develop peanut varieties that are more resistant to disease and pests, thereby further reducing the amount of pesticides farmer use.

Feed a growing world population. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to be nine billion. The need for efficient and sustainable agricultural practices is vital. Precision breeding allows farmers to grow more peanuts on the same amount of land, thereby creating sustainability for future generations.

Improvements on the traditional can have a big impact on our lives, as Ben Franklin’s bifocals aptly illustrate. Water-efficient, nutrient and energy-dense crops are key to meeting the food supply and nutrition demands for the future.

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