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Tef is Ethiopia’s most important staple food crop. Because its tall, weak stem makes the plant fall over easily, researchers at the Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) at the University of Bern have bred a variety with shorter, sturdier stalks. After several years of field testing, one improved variety has recently been approved for farm use in Ethiopia. Thanks to this new variety and others in development, small farmers will benefit from better harvests. The Syngenta Foundation has been supporting the Tef Improvement Project since 2006, and will now continue this support with a further 2.75 million Swiss francs.
Tef plays a central role in food security in Ethiopia. It is the staple food for approximately half of the country’s 100 million people. Small farmers grow tef on roughly one-third of the land allocated to cereal crops. The crop is popular with both farmers and consumers because of its adaptability to different climate and soil conditions, as well as its high nutritional content. Furthermore, it is gluten-free and rich in minerals, which makes the grain a valuable and healthy food. However, these benefits are in contrast to its poor grain yield, which is far below that of wheat and rice. The main constraint to increasing productivity is the plant’s susceptibility to ‘lodging’ (falling over), especially when the crop is approaching harvest. The tall, weak stem is easily damaged by wind and rain. Lodging not only substantially reduces the quantity and quality of grain, but also makes mechanical harvesting difficult.
Sturdier tef plants
Although tef is of high national importance in Ethiopia, it does not play a significant role in the food security of other countries. Due to its resulting low priority for the international research community, tef is regarded as an "orphan crop". The Tef Improvement Project takes up this challenge, led by the agronomist and molecular biologist Dr. Zerihun Tadele from the Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) at the University of Bern. Dr. Tadele and his group have been successful in developing lodging-tolerant, semi-dwarf tef varieties. The researchers first identified changes that are triggered by particular genes, focusing on those that influence the plant height. They were then able to breed a strain of tef with a shorter and stronger stalk. These changes are exclusively based on genes found naturally in the plant. A further success for the team was complete sequencing of the tef genome. This improved understanding of the mechanisms responsible for dwarfism, as well as for resistance to flooding and drought, and opened the door to future improvements.
Expanding a well-established partnership
The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Basel, has been supporting the Tef Improvement Project since 2006. "When I approached the Foundation, staff there understood the problems that small farmers face with inferior crop yields, and immediately supported our project", explains Zerihun Tadele. To strengthen the working relationship, the Syngenta Foundation is now providing a further 2.75 million Swiss francs over the next eleven years.
Through its long-term involvement with the Tef Improvement Project, the Syngenta Foundation wants to make a further contribution to food security in Ethiopia. "We help small farmers around the globe to improve their income and food security", says Foundation Director Dr. Marco Ferroni. "The Tef project is an excellent example of Swiss-African collaboration. It has already made significant progress. We are convinced that the Bern research will result in further yield increases for small farmers."
A research project that spans more than 20 years is something exceptional for the University of Bern. "For niche research, like that being carried out with tef, the funding is a real boost", says Christian Leumann, Rector of the University of Bern. "We are particularly interested in partnerships in which long-term and successful research can be conducted on topics of relevance for society. Thanks to the Syngenta Foundation’s support, the University of Bern can make a sustainable contribution to improving an agricultural crop and its adaptation to changing environmental conditions." The funding is in line with the internal guidelines of the University of Bern; freedom of research is guaranteed.
From the laboratory to the field
The support enables Zerihun Tadele to transfer to small farmers the technologies developed in Swiss laboratories and tested in Ethiopian fields. "Our project also entails the transfer of knowledge and technology to state and scientific institutions in Ethiopia, as well as on-site training and workshops with specialists", says Tadele. In collaboration with these partners, the next step will be to establish and expand the dissemination of improved tef varieties to small farmers. As a holder of both Ethiopian and Swiss citizenship, Tadele is a bridge-builder between scientists in Bern and smallholders in Ethiopia. "I am confident that a number of our varieties will increase tef productivity and make a positive contribution to ensuring the livelihood of small farmers in Ethiopia", declares Tadele.