When agriculture leaps the high hurdle of negative public opinion regarding transgenic crops the peanut industry hopes to offer new products with improved health benefits and production advantages.
“We're way behind other commodities in genetic modification,” said Alan Orloff, Clint Williams Co., Madill, Okla., during a seed trade meeting prior to the recent Oklahoma Peanut Expo in Lone Wolf, Okla.
“But we have the advantage of better technology today. That will help us catch up.”
He said scientists now know how to change a plant without adding genes. “They can alter characteristics by turning a gene off, which may reduce consumer reluctance to try GMO products. If we can start with a ‘nothing added’ product we can avoid objections some have of putting animal genes into plants. Unfortunately, some paranoia is still there.”
Orloff said the industry “doesn't want Roundup Ready peanuts. But the possibility of developing a peanut without potential for peanut allergy is exciting.”
Shelley Nutt, Texas Peanut Producers Board, said potential to increase the amount of folic acid in peanuts also holds promises for an even healthier product. Our challenge is to develop consumer acceptance.”
“Oklahoma State University has been working on GMO peanut lines with sclerotinia resistance,” said USDA-ARS peanut breeder Kelley Chenault. “We have three or four lines that are outstanding.”
Those lines have genes from rice and alfalfa. “We need more screening and testing, but the resistance is there,” Chenault said.
She worked on transgenic peanuts for eight years, including six years of field testing. “But the overall consensus was that GMO peanut research was not going anywhere,” she said. “The seed is in cold storage and we've done limited crosses to get the high oleic trait into them. We'll need to do more screening and testing.”
She said work at Virginia Tech on GMO peanuts and sclerotinia resistance is using “a different gene.”
Chenault believes continuing the effort will require more research funds. “We'll probably need $1 million to go through the hurdles necessary to release a variety. But we're ready to proceed.” She said developing a transgenic peanut variety just to the first stage, before screening and testing, takes two to three years. “This is very long-term research.”
A big challenge will be consumer acceptance. “If there is no market for the product there will be no money for research.”
“Perception is the key,” Orloff said. “We can change that in Europe but not over night.”
Chenault said potential for turning off the gene associated with peanut allergies comes with its own set of challenges. “That could change the seed,” she said. “It could alter oil composition, flavor and other characteristics. We have to learn how to preserve the traits without keeping the allergen.”
Mike Kubicek, executive secretary, Oklahoma Peanut Commission, said peanut breeding must maintain continuity. “We can't stop and start. We are pleased to have a peanut breeder West of the Mississippi (Chenault).”