USDA $200,000 grant aims to help FVSU professor zap peanut plant pest

Peanuts in shell

February 19, 2016 – A new USDA-funded research project by a Fort Valley State University professor will focus on helping peanut farmers throughout the southeastern United States protect their crops from damage and avert enormous financial losses.

Georgia peanut farmers have been plagued by burrower bug damage in the past: the most severe outbreak on record occurred in 2010.  The black insect feasts upon the internal pods, damaging them.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded Fort Valley State University professor Dr. George Mbata, a Fulbright scholar, chair of the biology department, and an entomologist at the Agricultural Research Station, a $200,000 grant to study integrated approaches to managing infestations of Pangaeus bilineatus, commonly known as the burrower bug. The pest infests peanut crops causing major financial losses for Georgia and southeastern peanut farmers.

It is my pleasure for FVSU to be involved in problems that are affecting agriculture in the State of Georgia,” Mbata said.

Mbata and his colleagues will examine the effectiveness of a combination of insecticides and entomopathogens (a fungi parasite that attacks the bug) to control the pest.

“We will be looking at integrated biological controls of the burrower bug’s natural enemies along with chemical pesticides to control it in several states including in Georgia, South Carolina and Texas,” Mbata explained.

The entomologist said crop damage by the bug can cause major financial losses for peanut growers in the southern U.S. Harvested peanuts infested by burrower bugs are downgraded to a lower classification called “Segment 2” when there is 2.5 percent, or higher internal damage. Segment 2 peanuts can only be used for oil stock (peanut oil) instead of salted snacks for consumers.

“Infestation by the bug can cause the downgrade of peanuts from Segment 1 to Segment 2, causing a 65 percent loss in value,” Mbata said. “Segment 1 peanuts sell for $330 per metric ton. Seg. 2  peanuts only have a market value of only $130 per ton.”

The researcher noted the infestation of peanut by this pest is related to higher aflatoxin content of peanuts. Aflatoxin is a known carcinogen in human beings.

Dr. Mbata will be conducting the research with Dr. David Ilan-Shapiro, a research entomologist and lead scientist at the USDA’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Unit and Dr. Mark Abney, a University of Georgia Extension Entomologist.

“Dr. Mbata and I began a fruitful and rewarding collaboration a little more than 10 years ago. We began working on projects of mutual interest focused on developing novel and sustainable insect pest management solutions.  We have co-authored a number of scientific peer-reviewed publications together,” Ilan-Shapiro said. “ Our research has expanded the knowledge base on the use of entomopathogenic nematodes, which is applicable to various agricultural and horticultural commodities.  We will be working with farmers on the upcoming project once our treatments are ready to test in the field.”

In addition to research and training, the researchers will hire a graduate student based out of FVSU, and fund a master student project. Some undergraduate students will conduct their senior research project through the program.

This is the second grant that Mbata has received to study control of pests affecting peanut crops. In 2011, the Georgia Peanut Commission awarded Mbata and Shapiro-Ilan a $28,000 grant to study ways to manage the burrower bug.

“I am pleased that Dr. Mbata has received a grant to address an important problem faced by the peanut industry” said Dr. Govind Kannan, dean of the College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology.  “Peanut is one of Georgia’s top commodities and the industry contributes significantly to the state’s economy.  I congratulate Dr. Mbata on securing this grant,’ Kannan said.

“Dr. Mbata’s study will be vital to the economic and agricultural well-being of Georgia and a number of other states,” said Dr. Uppinder Mehan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.