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Tef Grain Focus Of New Research On Adapting Crops To Climate Change

Julia Ritchey

 Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, are trying to make a tiny, ancient grain called Tef more productive in the face of a warming planet.

If you've tried Ethiopian food, chances are you've heard of tef, a small, poppy-seed sized cereal chock-full of nutritional value.

Biochemistry professor John Cushman has spent the last couple of years studying tef at UNR’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.

"This is tef, you see here in front of you,” says Cushman. “Well, you can't see it, but it looks like any other tall grass. It's a c4 tropical grass."

Although frigid outside, it’s balmy inside the greenhouse, which keeps these 367 tef specimens happy.

"It's primary use is for making bread called injera, and this is a fermented bread that's the staple in Ethiopia. In fact, about 70 percent of the Ethiopian population consume tef as their main form of calories."

Ethiopia is most familiar with tef because it grows more than 7 million acres of it annually.

"The importance of tef in the global arena is very minimal, right? It's important only for Ethiopian people.”

That's Mitiku Mengistu, a graduate researcher on the project, who’s from Ethiopia.

“Much of the research work by the international community focuses on globally important crops,” says Mengistu. “So the research on tef was not significant."

Both he and Cushman say this is changing, however, now that tef has gained popularity in the U.S. as an alternative to wheat flour for those who can’t digest gluten.  

The crop has even made inroads in states like Nevada, where more farmers are choosing it over alfalfa because it consumes about one-third of the water.

“Not only is it providing a grain for human consumption, but it’s also fulfilling that forage or fodder role for cattle production,” says Cushman.

Over the last decade, the amount grown here has nearly tripled — with 1,200 acres grown annually. Tef is already pretty drought tolerant, but Cushman’s research seeks to push those boundaries further.

In his greenhouse, Cushman points to a row of wilted, brown grass that's undergoing a stress test to see how little water it can survive on.

"This would be a great innovation for places like Ethiopia, but also particularly for Nevada, where all of our agricultural production depends 100 percent on irrigation," he says. 

Credit Julia Ritchey
A close-up of tef, a staple of the Ethiopian diet.

  Water efficiency in crops will especially become important as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change.

"Moving forward, the predictions are that the western U.S. is going to have a continued drying pattern, so that means the length of the droughts and their severity is going to get worse and worse over time," says Cushman.

Their research is still in its early stages and expected to last about five years. Right now they’re collecting and analyzing germ plasms from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and screening each one.

“If we can develop crops that are more drought tolerant or more lodging resistant, it also makes the crop overall more attractive to more farmers,” he says. 

With demand for tef high and supply of water low, Cushman says these sturdier strains could help farmers cope with a much warmer climate in the future, making more efficient use of our very limited water resources. 

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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