March 10, 2010

Baseball’s Back—With More Peanuts Than Ever

Filed under: Agriculture

For many citizens in the USA, this has been a winter for the ages. From no end of storms in the Southwest to record-breaking snow in the Northeast, this has been one long winter. But in Arizona and Florida, the boys of summer are dusting off their bats and balls and spring training is now underway. Fans are flocking back to the ballparks, and our consumption of peanuts is on the rise. American will eat more than 600 million pounds of peanuts this year at ballparks around the country (and elsewhere), we will eat over 700 million pounds of peanut butter, and we will spend over four billion dollars on our peanut habit.

What’s the climate change rub? Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are enhancing peanut productivity and protecting the crop from the harmful impacts of atmospheric pollutants such as ozone. Which means more peanuts to go around. So next time you raise your hand and call out “Hey Beerman, how about a cold one and jumbo bag of peanuts!” remember that elevated atmospheric CO2 is helping to keep your bag full.

Raw, roasted, shelled or unshelled in all forms are available throughout the year; our kids seem to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Contrary to what their name implies, peanuts are not true nuts but a member of a family of legumes related to peas, lentils, chickpeas and other beans. Peanuts start growing as a ground flower that due to its heavy weight bends towards the ground and eventually burrows underground where the peanut actually matures. They contain over 80 nutrients are qualify all game long as health food (OK – the peanuts are wonderful for you; but maybe we should take it easy on the molasses-based caramel-coated ones in our Cracker Jack box).

Here is a brief history of peanuts, according to the National Peanut Board ;

Peanuts originated in South America, probably in Brazil and Peru. They were grown as far north as Mexico by the time the Spanish began their exploration of the New World. When the explorers returned to Spain, they brought peanuts with them. Later, traders were responsible for spreading peanuts to Africa and Asia.

Records show that in the 1800’s peanuts were grown commercially in South Carolina and used for oil, food and a cocoa substitute. However, peanuts were regarded as food for livestock and the poor. They also were difficult to grow and harvest, so they were not widely grown in the United States.

The first notable increase in US peanut consumption came in 1860 with the outbreak of the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides turned to peanuts for food and they took their taste for peanuts home with them and peanuts were sold freshly roasted by street vendors and at baseball games and circuses. While peanut production rose during this time, peanuts were still harvested by hand, leaving stems and trash in the peanuts. Thus, poor quality and lack of uniformity kept down the demand for peanuts.

Around 1900, labor-saving equipment was invented for planting, cultivating, harvesting and picking peanuts from the plants, as well as for shelling and cleaning the kernels. With these mechanical aids, peanuts rapidly came into demand for oil, roasted and salted nuts, peanut butter and candy.

As baseball season gets underway, we decided to see how the continued buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will impact our beloved peanuts; no better place to look that the journal Crop Science, and sure enough, two recent and highly related articles address the future of peanuts.

Both articles involve peanuts grown in just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina in the 2002 and 2003. Some plants grew in ambient air while others were grown in air that was charcoal filtered. Most importantly, some plants were grown with higher levels of atmospheric CO2 (expected to have a positive effect), others were grown with higher levels of atmospheric ozone O3 (expected to have a negative effect), and still others were grown with both higher levels of CO2 and O3.

The Burkey et al. peanut research team works at the US Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State University, and they have great news for the peanut lovers amongst us. Looking only at the effects of increasing atmospheric CO2 from 375 ppm to 548 ppm (we are currently near 390 ppm globally), they found that the pod numbers increased by 10% in the charcoal filtered air and 22% in the non-filtered air. The seed mass increased by 17% and 18% in the charcoal filtered and non-filtered air, respectively. The news gets even better as they note “Market value of Virginia-type peanuts is based in part on pod and seed size. Pods larger than 1.3 cm in diameter are given the term “fancy” with a greater value placed on bulk peanuts that have more than 40% fancy pods.” You guessed it – elevated CO2 increased the percentage of fancy pods up to 6%.

There was no doubt that elevated O3 was bad for the plants, but the Burkey et al. team showed over and over that elevated CO2 restored the damage from caused by the ozone. From the perspective of the peanuts, O3 was definitely a pollutant while CO2 was a white knight ameliorating the damage from O3. If you are concerned about the quality of the nuts, relax as the researchers report “Gas treatment effects on peanut market grade characteristics were small. No treatment effects were observed on the protein and oil contents of seeds”. In their conclusions section, they reinforce the idea that elevated CO2 will increase yield without any decline in quality.

In a second paper on the experiment, the Tu et al. team fires off in their introduction reminding us that “Many studies have shown that elevated CO2 concentrations increased photosynthesis rates, biomass accumulation, and seed production in C3 plants. Positive responses have been documented in crops such as cotton, peanut, potato, rice, soybean, and wheat”. And despite this goodness, the global warming alarmists continue to refer to “CO2 pollution” – go figure. This team reports that “When averaged across the O3 treatments, biomass accumulation in roots, stems, leaves, and pods was increased by as much as 51, 69, 47, and 25%, respectively, in the elevated CO2 treatments compared with controls”. They also concluded that “Elevated CO2 generally increased biomass production while O3 suppressed it, and CO2 ameliorated the O3 effect.” We get the message loud and clear – like virtually every other plant on the Earth, peanuts love higher levels of CO2 (and we love peanuts)!

Time to go – baseball is back (and we all know what that means)!

“Get your cold beer here. PeaNUTS!”


Burkey, K.O., F.L. Booker, W.A. Pursley, and A.S. Heagle. 2007. Elevated carbon dioxide and ozone effects on peanut: II. Seed yield and quality. Crop Science, 47, 1488-1497.

Tu, C., F.L. Booker, K.O. Burkey, and S. Hu. 2009. Elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide and O3 differentially alter nitrogen acquisition in peanut. Crop Science, 49, 1827-1836.

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