Teff on the Rise: A Grain Native to Ethiopia Is Poised To Take Over the World

The nutritional benefits of teff are making food scientists, chefs and celebrities around the world take notice. The grain, which is a staple in Ethiopia cuisine, is poised to become the world’s next ‘super food.’ But before it can reach the international acclaim of other grains, like quinoa, wheat and barley, questions about whether or not it can be exported from Ethiopia and what that will mean for this country’s economy need to be asked. EBR’s Yoseph Mekonnen explores the issue further. 

It is perhaps one of the world’s smallest food grains, but Teff has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years. Farmed mainly in the highlands of Ethiopia, Teff has been, for centuries, a staple of the Ethiopian diet but has recently garnered international acclaim for its distinct qualities and unique flavor. 

Teff has long-suffered from a lack of research on its nutritional value, unlike popular global crops like rice, wheat, and maize, which are widely studied and well-funded. But, a recent spate of scientific research and inquiry has demonstrated that the grain has nutritional benefits, such as high protein content. 

Until recently, Teff has been best known for being the main ingredient in injera, the spongy bread that’s a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. Recently, however, Teff has been used in cuisine all over the world as a main ingredient for juices, chocolates and certain pastas. It is gaining increased interest abroad among health aficionados seeking a nutritious, gluten-free alternative to wheat and other crops. 

Companies like Costa Concentrados Levantinos, founded in 1887, Spain, produce organic Teff juices under the brand Amandin, which is suitable for those with lactose or milk proteins intolerance. 

Asnake Fikre (PhD), a crop researcher at the Ethiopian Agriculture Research Institute affirms that Teff is getting international acceptance for reasons other than just its nutritional benefits.

Teff production and areas of cultivation“The increasing number of visitors to Ethiopia who have been exposed to the taste of Ethiopian national dishes and the more than two million Ethiopians who live abroad have contributed for its popularity by promoting Teff in their day-to-day food consumption,” the researcher told EBR. 

Relatively mysterious outside of Ethiopia, Teff is now even expected to replace quinoa, a grain crop grown primarily for its edible seeds, and popular in the Western Hemisphere, according to research conducted on gluten-free cereal products by Elke Arendt (PhD), professor of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork. 

Originated in Latin America, quinoa, because of its unique characteristics, such as high protein content, tolerance of dry soil and being gluten-free, has now crossed continental boundaries, gaining popularity in countries all over the world, including the United States, Canada, and much of Western Europe. 

Its global demand has also increased 18-fold in the last decade and reached 100,000 tonnes by the end of 2013, according to the World Bank latest estimate. Even a NASA technical report published a decade ago named quinoa, “a great food to take into space.”

Teff has quinoa-like potential, research revealed. It boasts all kinds of highly marketable health traits that have made quinoa such a hit all over the world.  

In 1996, the United States National Research Council characterized Teff as having the potential to boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land care. A report published the same year affirmed that Teff has as much, or even more, food value than the major grains; wheat, barley, and maize. 

The grain can be used by people with celiac disease and has a high concentration of different nutrients, very high calcium content and significant levels of minerals; phosphorous, magnesium, aluminium, iron, copper, zinc, boron and barium and also thiamine. 

Teff is also high in protein.  It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition, including all eight essential amino acids for humans and is higher in lysine than wheat and barley. Teff is high in carbohydrates and fiber. Even better, Teff can help to keep blood sugar levels steady, making it ideal for diabetics.

Teff grains are reported to contain 9-11Pct protein, an amount slightly higher than in normal sorghum, maize, or oats. However, samples tested in the United States have consistently shown even higher protein levels: 14-15Pct. The protein’s digestibility is high because the main protein fractions—albumin, glutelin, and globulin—are the most digestible types. The albumin fraction is particularly rich in lysine. 

With such potential, Teff has been hailed as the next ‘super-food’ and is now part of a new diet fad by A-list Hollywood celebrities, including Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow. 

Although Teff largely remains an experimental crop in the United States and Europe, with a limited number of acres grown for grain or as a late-planted livestock forage, specialty mills companies process the grain into flour for retail sale. Because of its high mineral content in Europe and US, Teff is used in mixtures with soybean, chickpea and other grains in the baby food industry.

Lost Crops of Africa, a book published by the Washington-based National Research Council in 1996, asserts that one large piece of injera a-day supplies an Ethiopian with enough amino acids to sustain life without another protein source, and two pieces are “sufficient to ensure good health.” 

A study conducted by Seyfu Ketema, an expert at the Biodiversity Institute of Ethiopia in 1997 found that white Teff, most popular for making injera in Ethiopia, has 56Pct more calcium and 68Pct more iron than wheat. 

Teff accounts for about a quarter of total cereals production in Ethiopia. For many, it may seems that Ethiopia, whose current Teff production stood at 4.67 million tonnes a year, according to the latest Agricultural Sample Survey conducted by the Central Statistical Agency, is the main supplier for markets in Europe as well as the United States. Before 2005, there was no legal restriction that limits the export of Teff from Ethiopia. However, the country has banned the export of Teff since 2006, after serious Teff shortages impacted the country.

Different research conducted on the issue, however, reveals that Teff production in the Northern Hemisphere began more than three decades ago.  In fact, Teff production in the United States began in the 1980s by Teff Co., a company, founded by Wayne Carlson, has been growing Teff for more than 25 years. 

Carlson became acquainted with Ethiopian food and culture in the early 1970s, when he lived and worked in Ethiopia as a biologist. After learning about Teff, he found the climate and geology similar to Ethiopia’s in Idaho, a state located in the north-western region of the United States. The company even posted in its official website “With fertile fields and ecologically-sensitive farming methods, some of the best quality Teff in the world is produced in Idaho.”

Other companies such as Desert Oasis Teff also categorized as the bigger companies now growing Teff in US. Since 2005, the area devoted to Teff production has exploded, and Teff is currently grown in at least 25 states across the United Sates, according to a research conducted by University of Nevada in 2010.

With such competition coming from developed nations, experts, fear that Ethiopia might lose its absolute advantage over Teff. “Since Western countries have a better advantage to adopt cutting age technologies to increase Teff productivity, Ethiopia should devise a strategy to benefit from the growing international demand,” Bedelu Taye, a former senior crop expert at Wondo Genet Agricultural Research Centre, who currently teaches at Dilla University, said.

One of the ways that Ethiopia can benefit from Teff, according to the expert, is to increase local production immensely so that it has enough leftovers for the international market in the future. 

“The experience of South American countries reveals that no matter how hard they try, quinoa harvest expanded to Western countries, which initially diminishes their absolute advantage on the grain,” he told EBR.

Indeed, every quinoa seed eaten in the United States or Europe used to be imported from South America, specifically, from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile. A decade ago, almost no farmers outside of these countries grew it. Eventually, however, Western plant breeders and scientists who study the biology and economics of quinoa changed that. Currently it grows in more than 70 countries.

However, the Ethiopian government does not have a plan to lift a ban on Teff export any time soon. 

“The government is perusing a plan to double Teff production within in the period of the Growth and Transformation Plan,” says Tarekegne Tsegi, Public Relations Bureau head at the Ministry of Agriculture. “But it has no plan to lift the export ban.”

Agricultural experts such as Daregut Tadesse, associate professor of Agriculture at Bahir Dar University opposes the idea of exporting Teff because it will be repeating the mistake occurred before 2006, which forced the country to lose the rights to the genetic varieties of Teff to a Dutch company. 

“Many things are at stake here since more than half of the Ethiopians consume Teff and close to six million farmers are dependent on it,” Daregut argued. “Instead, the government and the private sector should prepare themselves in the future to reap the benefit out of the growing international demand by adding value to the grain locally.”

Judging from the current international market trend, many scholars who have done a concrete study on the issue predicts that Teff will be the world’s next super food. 

The question here is whether Ethiopia will hand over the absolute advantage it has enjoyed for so many centuries or fight back to reclaim and insure the sole beneficiary rights of the grain in the future.

2nd Year . September 2014 . No.18


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