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Q&A with C. Michael Deom

By Emily Urban
University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab


C. Michael (Mike) Deom is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He is Lead Scientist on PMIL’s "Peanut Varietal Development": An Integrated Global Breeding and Genomics Approach to Intensifying Peanut Production and Quality project.

Mike is also a collaborator on PMIL’s "Southern Africa Peanut Value Chain" project. Currently he is coordinating research in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zambia.

Breeding programs in his project have already resulted in the release of several highly promising cultivars and over a dozen publications including the release of a Groundnut Production Guide for Uganda.

PMIL: Let’s talk about your current research project and how you got involved working in Africa.

Dr. Deom: "My interest in the PMIL project is based on breeding primarily focused on developing disease resistance and increasing yields. The third component of the program is to add value-added traits such as increased nutrients and high oleic acid content. My primary interest initially was resistance to groundnut rosette disease (GRD) in sub-Saharan Africa. About 15 years ago when I began working with the PMIL (formerly the Peanut CRSP) you could not reliably grow peanut from year to year in some areas of Africa due to GRD. In some years, you would get 100% crop loss depending due to the high disease pressure."

PMIL: So a lot of your project focuses on groundnut rosette disease?

Dr. Deom: "That’s my primary interest in the project. I’m a plant pathologist, but in this project I think of myself as a facilitator as much as a pathologist. This is really an umbrella project. There are a lot of different sub-projects, but they are all focused on some aspect of breeding to increase groundnut production and quality. All of us have talents and if you bring people together, and collaborate, then you can show much more impact.

However, all aspects of the project eventually have to do with yield. From a plant pathology standpoint, if you can develop disease resistant germplasm, then you can increase yield."

PMIL: You are doing a lot of work in Uganda with David Okello. Why did you choose Uganda? And, how does that work connect with our Feed the Future focus countries of Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia?

Dr. Deom: "I shifted my focus from Malawi to Uganda, because the disease occurred every year in Uganda. There are a number of areas in Uganda that are considered GRD hotspots where disease pressure is constantly present for screening germplasm for GRD resistance. This was not the case in Malawi, where the disease was much more variable from year to year. If you are working on a breeding program to identify disease resistant germplasm, you need to have selective pressure every year to fully evaluate the germplasm.

In addition, Uganda has two growing seasons vs. a single season in Malawi, Mozambique, or Zambia. In Uganda you have constant pressure twice a year and can evaluate germplasm twice as fast.

As far as working with David Okello, he is an excellent collaborator, who is very smart and savvy. Most importantly, David is highly motivated. He runs the largest groundnut breeding program in East Africa and represents an enormous resource of knowledge and germplasm for breeders in Feed the Future countries, including Haiti, where he has 16 lines being presently evaluated."

PMIL: So you are testing and growing varieties in Uganda and plan to use them in Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia?

Dr. Deom: "Well, that is the tricky part. All the new lines that David Okello is releasing now are resistant to GRD. They have been for quite a while. But, just because they have disease resistant traits, doesn’t mean they are the best varieties for an area. It doesn’t mean that they will perform well or that they are the type of varieties that people prefer, or that they provide the type of nut with the flavor, the texture, the sweetness, and/or the size that they like. You have to consider all these aspects that farmers prefer when they are growing the crop and that consumers prefer when they are eating groundnuts.

The trick is always to get the farmer and consumer to accept the varieties. Obviously there is more market value in acceptance.

Also, the germplasm lines have to be tested in agro-ecological regions of Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. You have to take them out into the country, give them to farmers, and determine if those traits hold up in a new location.

It is also a process of breeding the resistance, yield, and value added traits into the local varieties that are preferred, because your acceptance rate is going to be much higher. Local varieties are always the preferred varieties."

PMIL: Even if they don’t produce as much yield?

Dr. Deom: "You have to consider the cultural aspects. Early on, I thought, if you have a groundnut line that has resistant to GRD and you are getting good yields then “why not use it?” But it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes the introduced varieties are such that farmers will grow them and there will be a market for the variety, but, sometimes they will shy away from the introduced varieties. Culturally, you don’t want to force new varieties on somebody. However, if you can breed the desired traits into the local preferred varieties, then the acceptance rate is likely to be very high.

From my standpoint, there are enough cultivars out there with resistance to GRD that as breeders take the cultivars that are released and move the resistance into local cultivars—GRD should become much less of a problem in sub-Saharan Africa, which is why I went into this originally. That aspect is personally very satisfying.

What makes this all worthwhile for me is the farmers and consumers having access to varieties that work for them and having this whole problem of GRD put to rest. At the same time, we are increasing yields and quality in varieties that farmers and consumers like and readily accept. The end result increases food and financial security."

Published September 29, 2015