USDA official sees bright future for agriculture

Despite the impact of rising fuel prices and droughts, the outlook for American agriculture this year is very good, says Gale Buchanan, chief scientist and undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics with the United States Department of Agriculture.

“In fact, to quote USDA’s Chief Economist Joe Glauber, ‘The outlook for agriculture has rarely, if ever, been more favorable,’” said Buchanan at the recent Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla.

“And as USDA’s chief scientist, I can tell you I’m equally positive about the future outlook for agriculture in general, and also for peanuts,” he says. “The reason I'm so positive is because of several factors. Peanuts are a highly nutritional commodity. It is also a popular snack food. But even more important is the fact peanuts can play a leading role in meeting the world’s growing demand for energy security.”

Buchanan says he is very familiar with the challenges of farming, including the continuing drought and rising input costs. “Of course, there are always disease and pests along with food safety issues and concerns associated with peanut allergens,” he said.

The future of peanut production, says Buchanan, is through information, knowledge, science and technology gained through research. This research is being conducted by USDA and supported through the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and also sponsoring at universities through the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), soon to be the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

ARS alone has about 12 different laboratories working on various peanut research projects, he says. This year, their budget devoted about $10.5 million to peanut research. For FY2009 the estimate is about the same.

“As you all have heard, the price of both fuel and food gets mentioned quite often in the press,” he says. “The good news is that agriculture is getting a lot more attention. The bad news is that biofuels production is getting too much of the blame for rising food prices. Of course, much of the blame is on corn-based ethanol.

“The fact is there are many other factors at play including the rising cost of inputs including diesel, pesticides, fertilizer and droughts around the world. Higher food prices are also affected by population growth, depreciation of the dollar and rising expectations (increases in standard of living) of many people around the world.”

Despite these issues, he adds, it’s a challenging but exciting time for agriculture and agricultural research, and peanuts are a part of that portfolio.

What’s happening today, said Buchanan, represents a paradigm shift for agriculture where agriculture is changing from providing food, feed, fiber, and flowers to food, feed, fiber, flowers, and fuel (energy).

“I consider sustainable bioenergy production to be one of the grand challenges for agriculture of this century. Other grand challenges include climate change, water availability and food security. Not surprisingly, all four of these grand challenges are connected and all four can benefit from more agricultural research, education and Extension,” he says.

Peanuts have the potential to play an important role not only as a food crop but also as a bioenergy crop, says Buchanan.

“Of course right now, soybeans are the primary oilseed used in biodiesel production. However, soybeans contain only between 18 and 25 percent oil whereas peanuts are approximately 50 percent oil. Scientists estimate that 2,800 pounds of peanuts per acre could yield in excess of 110 gallons of biodiesel per acre, a 50-percent increase per acre versus soybeans.”

USDA-ARS scientists at the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., have been working on peanut biodiesel production systems for two years, says Buchanan. Preliminary research is very promising, he says, and indicates that high-oil variety peanuts grown in a low input production system — low fungicides, low insecticides, and minimal herbicide input — could yield more than a ton per acre, or more than 100 gallons of biodiesel oil.

At the same time, USDA and university scientists are developing new varieties of peanuts specifically for biodiesel production, he says.

“We’re very excited about the future for peanuts as a source of biofuels,” says Buchanan.

Peanuts still remain an important food crop, says Buchanan, and there are a number of research projects being conducted to help producers, especially when it comes to fighting pests such as nematodes and diseases like tomato spotted wilt virus.

“One of the main ways we stay ahead of pest and disease issues is by developing new pest and disease resistant varieties. Scientists need to first find the right genes. However, narrow genetic diversity in commercial peanuts has hampered progress in developing improved varieties. The long-term competitiveness of the peanut industry in the United States depends on breeders being able to use new genomic and molecular technologies to find important genes to use in peanut breeding and variety development programs.”

A $500,000 National Research Initiative (NRI) competitive grant to the University of Georgia is funding genomic research in peanuts, including mapping two wild peanut species, says Buchanan. The new tools from this research can enhance the ability of plant breeders to use new sources of disease resistance and quality traits from these wild peanuts.

At Virginia Tech, he adds, CSREES-funding is contributing to the development and de-regulation of biotechnology-derived (transgenic) peanuts with the “Blight-Blocker” trait that confers resistance to Sclerotinia blight. And, research at North Carolina State University has defined leafspot management practices for organic peanut production.

“Another exciting development is a new variety called Tifguard, developed by the ARS Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit at Tifton, Ga.,” says Buchanan. “It’s the first variety that has resistance to both root-knot nematode and tomato spotted wilt virus. On-farm testing has been very favorable.”

Ongoing work is being conducted on reducing allergens in peanuts, he says ARS researchers at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans have screened more than 1,000 varieties of peanuts from the United States and other countries for plants either missing or with reduced levels of the major peanut allergens.

“I know one of your important issues is improving the grading system,” says Buchanan. “This is an area where research can help improve the efficiency of peanut grading by developing new procedures or technologies. ARS has been working with the Agricultural Marketing Service and Industry to do just that.”

Another important issue, he says, is finding a solution to herbicide-resistant weeds; in particular, Palmer amaranth pigweed and tropical spiderwort.

“Research by USDA-ARS and University of Georgia scientists is under way to develop management systems that will aid growers minimizing the impact of these weeds. Researchers are screening various herbicides, and looking at different cover crops which may provide more effective controls. Weed management will likely include unique combinations of herbicides and cultural practices.”

Conservation-tillage, says Buchanan, remains a key to conserving soil and water and improving production efficiency. “For these reasons, USDA has a broad-based research program to develop sustainable agricultural systems that conserve natural resources while improving efficiency. One of the most interesting projects in recent years has been experiments conducted at the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson during 2006-2007. Researchers there have shown you can achieve increased yield, water savings and economic returns in peanuts, corn, and cotton by using furrow dikes.”

This tillage operation, he explains, creates a series of basins and dams in the furrow between the crop rows to help capture water from irrigation and/or rainfall. During 2006, irrigated peanut yields were increased by 270 pounds per acre by using furrow dikes. Similar results were obtained for cotton and corn. Significant savings in irrigation water applied resulted in 2006 and 2007.

“Furrow diking also resulted in reduced soil erosion. In a controlled rainfall simulation study, land without furrow dikes had three times more runoff and three and a half times more soil erosion compared to land with furrow dikes.”

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