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Bolivian peanuts September 13th, 2015 by

When you think of Bolivia, peanuts are not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet peanuts are a native crop, domesticated and grown in lowland South America (east of the Andes) for at least 7000 years. The ancient Moche people of Peru even honored the peanut by making gold and silver jewelry of it.

maní chiclayoAlthough peanuts are an oil crop in many countries, in Bolivia the peanut is grown more for food. South Americans have many delightful local dishes based on the peanut, such as peanut soup, peanut drinks, and anticuchos—grilled beef heart covered in a thick peanut sauce.

Despite its popularity in Bolivia, the peanut was neglected by researchers. Now the crop is getting the attention it deserves, although this love comes with its own risks, as I learned recently at the First National Congress and Forum on Peanuts in Bolivia.

There were few peanut specialists when research began in 2004 and no dedicated institution. So Bolivian researchers got together, formed a network, and began building links to specialists in other countries, where peanut research was well established.

In 2007, Bolivia had one of the world’s lowest peanut yields, barely a ton per hectare. R&D paid off, and now yields are up to 1.6 tons per ha, a remarkable increase in such a short time.

The peanut was first domesticated in the Chaco, the dry lowlands where Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Peanuts are well adapted to the short rains followed by a blistering hot dry season. A remarkable genetic diversity emerged from these challenging conditions. Today there are around 100 land races (locally adapted varieties) of peanuts still grown in and near the Bolivian Chaco. The genetic diversity is important for plant breeders around the world who seek improved disease resistance or drought tolerance.

Twelve thousand families grow almost all the peanuts in Bolivia, about 21,000 tons, and perhaps 60% is exported, mostly to Peru. Accounts vary, but only eight to 18 peanut varieties are grown commercially in Bolivia. The other 80 or 90 land races are grown in very small amounts, by isolated people in marginal areas, so most of these land races are at risk of extinction.

1283 Eleuterio, manĂ­ y maĂ­z2Some of this rich genetic diversity is represented in the two major, international peanut gene banks which breeders rely on. The largest collection, of 14,968 accessions, is held by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Patancheru, India. Most of their accessions are from local land races that arose in Asia. The USDA gene bank in Griffin Georgia, has 9027 accessions, based in part on collections made in Bolivia in the 1990s.

It was encouraging to learn that the Bolivians have their own gene bank with 1050 accessions, potentially representing a greater genetic diversity than the other two gene banks combined. In their typically generous fashion, the Bolivians have placed the data on the internet, in English and Spanish, for public inspection, and possibly for sharing seed www.iniaf.gob.bo and http://200.87.120.158/gringlobal/search.aspx

Gene banks are an invaluable resource but storing seeds is not the same as growing a crop on a farm. Seeds in gene banks don’t last forever and peanuts (and many other crops) need to be planted and harvested every few years to get fresh stock. Over generations of this artificial selection, the seeds are selected for life in the gene bank, not for life on the farm, where it really matters. It’s crucial to keep any crop growing, in as many varieties as possible, especially in its native homeland.

Research may be improving in Bolivia, but farmers’ concerns are still rooted in profitability. At the Bolivian Peanut Congress, when we split up to attend sessions, almost all of the farmers attended the one on peanut marketing and repeatedly asked for help finding new markets. The sessions on genetics were attended largely by researchers with interests in conservation and breeding.

Farmers who maintain land races are performing a public service that’s taken for granted. Many land races have limited commercial value and could be displaced and lost as higher yielding varieties take over. Commercial growing can really improve rural livelihoods, but only a handful of varieties will become commercial. What will happen to the other 90 varieties grown in very small amounts? There is a real risk is that land races could disappear, causing an irreplaceable loss of genetic diversity.

There is a contradiction here. Agricultural researchers, especially the plant breeders, would like farmers to maintain traditional land races of crops, for future research and development. Yet researchers can offer farmers little or no support to do that. As farmers in remote parts of tropical countries begin to sell more of their crop, these growers are less inclined to grow non-commercial land races.

I began to imagine a system that could preserve endangered crop varieties. Bolivia’s INIAF has already listed the peanut varieties on-line. Through the Internet, and personal contacts, different people could be persuaded to adopt a variety, or a few. They wouldn’t need to grow very many, a few plants each. They could include farmers, hobbyists, gardeners, peri-urban farmers: anyone who loves plants and who wants to share them. This network could share the seeds, and one person would be enough to monitor the flow and population of these precious plants. A moderator could keep track of where each variety was being grown.

There are some precedents for such an idea. For example, in Britain, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) maintains a “seed scheme”; members write in, and request packets of seed from the botanical gardens. The members only pay for the postage, and excess seed from the gardens is distributed to people who will raise the plants.

Acknowledgements. The Congress (El Primer Congreso y Foro del Maní Boliviano) was moderated by Edwin Mariscal and Juan Arévalo. It was sponsored by the Fundación Valles, INIAF (Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal) and by the Collaborative Crops Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Holbrook, C.C. 2001 “Status of the Arachis Germplasm Collection in the United States” Peanut Science 28:84-89

Williams, D.E. 2001 “New Directions for Collecting and Conserving Peanut Genetic Diversity.” Peanut Science 28:135-140.

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