By Laura Dorle, Intern—
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are very familiar to those in the United States, and around the world. Here in the U.S., the peanut is our favorite nut—eaten raw, in the form of peanut butter, or in the many varieties that gave our own USDA scientist, George Washington Carver, his claim to fame.
We think of peanuts as the classic American nut, and in a sense they are, as they were domesticated in Peru in South America and are now grown around the world, serving an important role in many diets.
Peanuts, legumes, or groundnuts?
We group peanuts in the nut family, but unlike many other nuts we love to consume, the peanut does not grow on trees. In fact, they grow in the ground, and in many parts of the world their name gives way to that fact, groundnuts. They belong to the legume plant family, one that includes all those beans we know and enjoy. And as with all legumes, peanut plants have the ability to fix atomospheric nitrogen to improve the soil.
The peanut plant grows to about 12-18 inches in height, and has green ovular leaves. The plant produces yellow flowers, which continue to flower throughout the growing season (about four months). Once the flower is pollinated, it forms a “peg” which then bends toward the ground, and pushes the ovary into the top layer of soil where the peanut pod develops.
Peanuts and the developing world
Peanuts are highly nutritious, containing many important vitamins and minerals, and are high protein and oil content. Because peanuts grow in abundance in many parts of the developing world, including throughout East and West Africa, they have the potential to provide desperately-needed nutrition in many communities that suffer with extreme hunger.
Despite their importance to the global poor, peanuts can be dangerous. Without proper handling and storage, peanuts are particularly susceptible to aflatoxin contamination post-harvest, a deadly carcinogen produced by a fungus that causes food safety issues for local consumers and losses in the ability to export. That, combined with the difficulties of manual processing, can lead to significant yield and quality losses in poor communities.
Better peanut tools can improve nutrition and lives
Efforts to create greater efficiency in production and higher marketable values can play an important role in rural communities in the developing world to improve farmer livelihoods and community nutrition.
With the support of the McKnight Foundation, CTI, in partnership with Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, is working on a project to do just that. In Tanzania and Malawi in Eastern Africa they are testing and developing simple, affordable mechanical technologies to improve harvesting, handling, drying, stripping pods from plants, storage, shelling, and grinding. They have been evaluating these new technologies with farmers on the ground, as well as seeking to improve child nutrition and reduce aflatoxin contamination.
In the next few weeks, I will be running stripping, drying, and shelling efficiency tests on the peanuts that CTI and the University of Minnesota have been growing as part of the Orphan Crops project on the University’s St. Paul Campus.
Laura is a student intern from the University of Minnesota who is helping CTI manage its Orphan Crops Plot—a collaboration between CTI and the University of Minnesota to grow and research some of the most important food crops of the developing world.