Mythbusters: GMO Peanuts

Spoiler Alert: There are no GMO Peanuts on the Market Today.

But it’s easy to be confused about what GMO really means. It took a late-night TV talk show host a long time to get the right answer when his crew visited a local farmer’s market to ask, “What’s a GMO?”After about a dozen interviews, the right answer comes out: “genetically modified organism.”

What Exactly Is a GMO Food?

The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  gives this definition of GMO : “We use the term “genetic engineering (GE)” to refer to genetic modification practices that utilize modern biotechnology. In this process, scientists make targeted changes to a plant’s genetic makeup to give the plant a new desirable trait.”

It’s important to note FDA regulates the safety of all food for humans and animals, including foods from genetically engineered plants. According to FDA, “foods from GE plants must meet the same food safety requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.” Many examples exist of the positives of GMOs—GMO papaya saved the crop from devastating disease in Hawaii and Golden Rice helps eliminate Vitamin A deficiency, which leads to irreversible blindness and death; particularly alarming among people in developing countries.

Some confusion comes into play when people mix up the meaning of genetic modification practices (producing GMOs) with traditional plant breeding practices (producing new plant varieties).

To understand the difference and how it applies to peanuts, we talked to an expert peanut research biologist from USDA Agricultural Research Service in Stillwater, Okla., Kelly Chamberlin, Ph.D. Chamberlin has worked nearly two decades as a researcher and breeder developing lines of peanuts adaptable to the Southwestern United States. In 2015, she, along with the ARS Legume Breeding Team, received a Certificate of Merit from USDA Undersecretary at the time Catherine Woteki for the development of a peanut variety that is beneficial to both peanut farmers and peanut fans alike.

GMO or Traditional Breeding—What’s the Difference?

Chamberlin says, “For plants, a genetically modified organism is one that has had genetic material inserted into its genome that does not originate in that plant. For example, if you wanted to transfer genetic material from alfalfa into peanut tissue in order to produce a desirable trait, that’s a genetically modified organism because that genetic material was not originally present in that plant.”

GMO is not the same as traditional breeding, says Chamberlin. “With traditional breeding, a biologist does not put any new genetic material into the peanut plant that wasn’t already present in peanut plants. We may be mating the two or crossing two different peanut plants, but that happens continuously in nature anyway. Traditional breeding practices do not introduce any material into the peanut plant that wasn’t already present in the peanut plant.”

Peanut GMO LargeThe traditional breeding practices used by today’s scientists and breeders mimic the way peanut plants (and other plants) naturally cross, or transfer genes from one parent plant to another in nature.

“Because peanut plants are self-pollinating, a ‘natural crossing’ happens so rarely in peanuts, we speed up breeding process by taking the pollen from one plant and pollinating the flower of another peanut plant. We’re not introducing anything but peanut genes. There’s nothing from a different species being put in, that’s traditional breeding. However, we are able to create new varieties by taking a peanut plant that has a large amount of resistance to a disease and cross that plant with one that’s susceptible to disease, but maybe has other attributes that we prefer to cultivate. Hopefully, we will end up with a peanut plant variety that is disease resistant plus maintains the great cultivated qualities of the other parent. That is what our goal is in traditional breeding.”

Why Do We Want New Peanut Varieties?  

Humans have been breeding plants for thousands of years; mimicking nature, which crosses traits in plants naturally through pollination and other naturally-occurring factors. Developers generally want to create new plants for better flavor, higher crop output or yield, greater resistance to insect damage and immunity to plant diseases.

Some of these goals went into the creation of one of the newest peanut varieties—the OLé Spanish peanut variety. (pronounced O-LAY).

Using traditional breeding, Chamberlin, in a partnership with a team from USDA and Oklahoma State University, developed OLé. The project took 14 years of research, testing and growing in small research fields each season to be ready to plant in the farmer’s field for the first time in 2016.

Peanut farmers in the Southwestern states wanted to produce more Spanish peanuts, which is a type of peanut that grows very successfully in that area of the country. Spanish peanuts are found in candies and in canned nuts and have an intense roasted nutty flavor that is uniquely popular.

The OLé variety is a cross between a naturally-occurring gene that is high in oleic acid and a Spanish peanut. (For more on Types of Peanuts, click here.)

“When we measured the flavor and taste of OLé, it gets a very high roasted peanut score—a 6.7. I’ve never worked with anything above a roasted score of seven,” said Chamberlin. The seeds are a uniform size, making them perfect for candy bars or as canned snack nuts.

Other benefits of OLé include an increased shelf life because it is high in oleic acid. “High oleic peanuts such as OLé have up to 10 times the shelf life of traditional peanuts,” said Chamberlin. “The oleic acid found in OLé peanuts is a beneficial fatty acid associated with good nutrition.”

OLé peanut seed benefits the farmer. “OLé is resistant to several diseases, which saves farmers money on treatments and allows natural pollinators, such as bees, to live longer and return to the crops,” said Chamberlin.

So, are there GMO Peanuts on the Market Right Now?

There are no GMO peanuts on the market right now and no GMO peanut has been released, or approved for release,” said Chamberlin.

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