Eragrostis tef: About orphan crops, spill-overs and a gluten-free alternative

By Stephan Kamrad

In my last article I discussed why our diets are based on so few plant species. Wheat, rice, potatoes and maize are the major carbohydrate sources for almost the entire planet. This makes it all the more exciting when a new player enters the game or at least gets due recognition.

Eragrostis tef (commonly known as tef) is a grass that produces an extremely small seed (less than one millimetre in diameter). It is rich in iron and calcium and gluten-free which makes it suitable for people with celiac disease. It contains over 10% protein and is, unlike other cereals, rich in the essential amino acid lysine.
Tef is not a new cereal crop, it has been grown in the Horn of Africa for at least 3000 years and still makes up a quarter of Ethiopia’s carbohydrate production where tef flour is used to bake the traditional injera flatbread. In modern tef farming, it serves as both an orphan crop in Ethiopia and Eritrea and as a fodder crop and gluten-free cereal in the “Western World”.

Eragrotis tef (credit Rasbak)

Eragrotis tef (credit Rasbak)

Orphan crop is a term used for minor crops that are produced at much lower quantities than the big players and are not traded on international markets. However, they can be of great importance as part of the local culinary and agricultural tradition. They are also commonly well adapted to their specific habitats: Tef, for example, is resistant to many pests and pathogens as well as to drought and excess water. Sadly, orphan crops have been receiving almost no attention from crop improvement and breeding programmes. Advanced techniques like marker-assisted selection or the molecular tools to engineer these organisms genetically have simply not been developed/adapted for these plants. In Africa, orphan crops are especially common which means that our current efforts to improve food security partly miss exactly those who suffer most from hunger and poverty. Aiming to address this, a group of Swiss researchers have founded the Tef Improvement Project and recently published the genome of Eragrostis tef which will massively facilitate future breeding efforts. With help of the genomic sequence, many insights obtained from research on the model plant Arabidopsis and other major crop plants can probably be applied to tef. These “spill-overs” only require relatively small investments but have the potential to impact positively on the life of many millions.

Tef’s exceptional nutritional profile also attracted the attention of western consumers, especially since David William’s bestseller Wheat Belly convinced many Americans that a gluten-free diet is healthier even for people not suffering from celiac disease (for which there is no convincing evidence at all). Since the 1980s, tef has been grown in Idaho, US by a group of farmers around Wayne Carlson who brought the idea of growing tef back from Ethiopia. Due to increasing demands, tef production is rising and the flour is traded internationally with the biggest trader being Prograin International bv based in the Netherlands. Tef is a fast growing C4-grass that can be harvested multiple times within one growing season. High yields and its high protein content make a great fodder for livestock (a luxury that most Ethiopians do not have) and it is now grown in many of the warmer parts of the US as hay and forage crop.

Long ignored by international science and economics, tef couldn’t keep up with the intensively bred and fertilised major crop plants. Now that its importance for the people in its indigenous habitat and its potential for the “Western World” have been noticed, Ethiopian food security has a chance to improve in an effective and sustainable way and Eragrostis tef might turn out to be a valuable addition to our repertoire of crop plants.

 Interested and want to read more? Check out these papers about orphan crops and the TEF genome project.

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