Staple crops not just wheat, rice or corn

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Harwood Schaffer's professor for his doctorate program in sociology was Asafa Jalata, an Oromo. The Oromo are the largest enthonational group in Ethiopia. For New Year's Eve one year, Harwood and his wife were invited to Asafa...

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Harwood Schaffer's professor for his doctorate program in sociology was Asafa Jalata, an Oromo. The Oromo are the largest enthonational group in Ethiopia. For New Year's Eve one year, Harwood and his wife were invited to Asafa's home. Part of the festivities was a meal, which included bread that they never had seen before.

The bread looked like a large pancake that was cooked sunny side up. The Oromo name of the bread is bidena, and it is made from flour made from a grain they call tafi -- Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter. It turns out that Ethiopia is the only country in the world where tafi -- in English it is called teff -- is a significant staple crop, and a nutritious one at that.

Subject of study

Teff is the subject of a 1997 research monograph by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in its series "Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops." Seyfu Ketema is the author of that volume. It also is included in the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I Grains, published by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

The genus Eragrostis is familiar to U.S. gardeners as lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) or bunch grass with the seed produced in a panicle. It is the feathery panicle rising above the grassy leaves that makes love-


grass and annual bunch grass attractive to gardeners.

Qualities such as nutrition, storability, the palatability of the straw for cattle, and its use as a rescue crop when the monsoonal rains come too late for other crops make teff attractive to farmers in the central highlands of Ethiopia, where many Oromo live.

Seyfu writes, "the composition of teff is similar to that of millet, although it contains generally higher amounts of the essential amino acids, the most limiting amino acid. . . . The amino acid composition of teff is excellent, its lysine content is higher than that of all cereals except rice and oats, it has good mineral content and its straw is nutritious."

When bidena is eaten with pulses such as lentils, fava beans, field peas, broad beans and chickpeas, a good balance of essential amino acids is achieved.

"Teff straw . . . is . . . used to reinforce mud and plaster walls of tukuls and local grain storage facilities called gotera." The "straw is a valuable feed during the dry season" and "is highly preferred by cattle over the straw of other cereals."

Because of its small seed size teff "is not attacked by weevils and other storage pests and easily and safely is stored under local storage conditions. This results in reduced post-harvest management costs.

Seyfu notes that teff can be grown in low-moisture conditions and when the soil is waterlogged, "withstanding anaerobic conditions better than many other cereals including maize, wheat and sorghum." He also says that "compared to any other cereals growing in Ethiopia, it has fewer disease and pest problems."

"The small size of teff seed poses problems during sowing, and indirectly during weeding and threshing."


At present, teff yields more than 1 ton per hectare compared with 2 tons per hectare for maize. Seyfu writes that, while present yields are low, no comprehensive study has been conducted to assess the yield potential of the crop."

Worth a closer look

He also argues that a study of he conducted of a sample of teff varieties indicates its high yield potential and he is convinced that it could yield 6 tons per hectare "if it receives adequate research potential."

It often is stated that only a few staple crops produce the majority of the food supply. This might be correct, but the important contribution of many minor species should not be underestimated.

"Agricultural research has traditionally focused on these staples, while relatively little attention has been given to minor (or underutilized or neglected) crops, particularly by scientists in developed countries. Such crops have, therefore, generally failed to attract significant research funding. Unlike most staples, many of these neglected species are adapted to various marginal growing conditions," the series states.

As we talk about the need to double food production by 2050 and the importance of agricultural investment, the IPRGI editors make a good case for including teff and other minor crops as the object of some of that investment.

Editor's Note: Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy in the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee and is the director of the university's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.

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