Ethiopia’s gluten-free superfood is coming to Israel
Hebrew University develops vintage teff seeds into commercial crop for farmers
Researchers are bringing teff – the staple food of millions of Ethiopians – to Israel.
It is best known as the main ingredient in injera, the Ethiopian sour flatbread, and is now being described as a new superfood, quinoa for the 2020s.
It is gluten-free, rich in amino acids, proteins, fibers and minerals. And it can grow in harsh conditions and drought-prone climates.
Bringing a harvest from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean seems simple enough, for those who are not part of the agricultural world.
But as Professor Shuki (Yehoshua) Saranga of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says, it is a huge challenge to identify which breed among several hundred is best suited to modern, mechanized cultivation.
The problem is that 95% of the world’s teff is grown in Ethiopia and very little is available for export.
The government actually banned all overseas sales of teff between 2006 and 2015 to ensure there was enough for its own population and even now exports are at a very low level.
Professor Saranga and his team are working hard to develop teff as a cash crop in Israel, to provide consumers with a gluten-free alternative, and to provide the 160,000 strong Ethiopian community with a steady and fairly priced supply of their traditional staple food.
But it’s not just about planting teff seeds in a field in Israel and hoping for the best. Teff is what is known as an “orphan crop” – meaning it is not traded internationally and therefore has not benefited from the extensive research and development that has maximized wheat yields , corn, rice, barley and oats, for example.
Teff, with its narrow leaves and tiny seeds, is sown, grown and harvested by hand in Ethiopia.
Professor Sranaga has, over the past seven years, tested hundreds of seed varieties to see which of them will thrive as a ‘modern’ crop, with irrigation, fertilisers, mechanized harvesting and more. advanced technologies.
“Teff is mainly grown and harvested by hand in Ethiopia from sowing to harvesting to threshing and it is not suitable for modern agriculture,” Prof Saranga told NoCamels.
“And what we’re trying to do is actually develop it into a modern crop that would be more suitable for Israeli agriculture as well as other Western countries.”
The Ethiopian government did not provide a single teff seed for his research, so Professor Saranga had to resort to seeds that had been collected there as early as the 1920s and frozen in gene banks.
“We have already achieved our short-term goal of breeding 400 teff breeds which we obtained from international resources, because Ethiopians do not allow a single seed out of the country,” he said.
After looking at so many varieties in the lab, they are now planting and evaluating.
“This season we have teff fields growing in Israel with our seeds from the Golan Heights to Yotvata (kibbutz in the southern Negev). Thus, it can develop throughout Israel.
So far, farmers involved in teff trials grow it as fodder – animal feed – and cows love it.
Within the next five years, teff could be a commercially viable gluten-free crop for the human population in Israel and beyond. Professor Sranaga hopes the teff grown in Israel will be sold at an affordable price.
“At the moment, it costs between 12 and 15 shekels ($3.50 to $4.30) a kilo of flour,” he says, “while wheat flour would cost between one and two shekels. If you buy teff in health food stores as a certified gluten-free product, it can cost maybe 60 shekels ($17.30) per kilo.
“Many flour substitutes like a pure starch, but teff has fiber, vitamins, minerals, it’s a much nicer texture, a lot closer to bread, and a lot tastier than you could make with materials without conventional gluten.
One of the biggest problems is that plants tend to collapse – or “sink” – rather than recover. This does not bother Ethiopian farmers too much, as they harvest by hand. But this makes it impossible to use a combine harvester.
“It takes a long time to develop such a new product from a totally different environment. You have to do it step by step,” says Professor Saranga.
“Our goal is, first of all, to adapt, or facilitate the development and development of teff as a new culture in Israel, to acclimate to adapting to a culture in Israel, which will be a kind In a win-win situation, farmers will gain a new crop to benefit from and they will be able to diversify their crop rotation.
Currently, teff is grown on a trial basis on 3,000–5,000 dunams of land (300–500 hectares) in Israel. Increasing this figure by about 10 times would be sufficient to meet current demand.
“In Israel, no other researcher is working on teff. Worldwide, I would say there are maybe five to ten researchers working with teff,” says Professor Saranga.
“Some of the teff is grown in Holland, some in Germany, some in Australia, in the United States, mainly for animal feed. Some in Kenya, some in South Africa.
“But we are unique in that regard – we grow teff in Mediterranean conditions and irrigate it, which they don’t do elsewhere, which poses a whole new set of challenges.”
Professor Saranga’s research has been primarily funded by Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and more recently by the Israel Innovation Authority. It has had 15 students involved in the project, over its seven years so far, and has collaborated with researchers specializing in, for example, weed control and fertilizer application.
Food makers in Israel are expressing interest in locally grown teff, and Professor Saranga also says he wants Ethiopia to benefit from his research – although he has refused any help.
“We are in contact with Ethiopian researchers and we will gladly share the knowledge and breeds we are developing with them. I have an Ethiopian doctoral student here who will return to his country and use the knowledge he has acquired here for the benefit of his people.