Produced by Alberto Miti
ETHIOPIA IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S RICHEST CENTERS of major and minor crop diversity. Ethiopian farmers have grown wheat, barley, sorghum and peas for millennia, passing seeds from one generation to the next through an informal community-based seed sharing network.
Despite this tradition of agricultural biodiversity, Ethiopia is also an arid region, one vulnerable to climate change and drought. At a time of increasing globalization, Ethiopian farmers in recent generations have discarded seeds from hundreds of traditional grains in favor of a select few non-native industrial hybrids, but after many of these modern crops failed—partially due to climate change—farmers are shifting away from “modern” crops to safeguard the future and livelihood of Ethiopian rural communities.
Beginning in 2014, an ambitious project called Seeds for Needs, created with joint support from Ethiopian farmers and researchers at Bioversity International, Mekelle University, and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa, began researching Ethiopia’s past to reawaken ancient grains that might provide solutions to the country’s extreme vulnerability to drought and other environmental conditions.
Written by Carlo Fadda, Bioversity International
Edited by Ann Thrupp
Photography by Alberto Miti
TIGRAY IS ONE OF NINE REGIONAL STATES of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, a country with over 100 million people. It is a small region, with only 5.5 million people, most of whom belong to the Tigrinya ethnic group, a vital cultural and political fixture in the country’s social landscape. While the Ethiopian population is growing rapidly—the average woman has four children in her lifetime (World Bank)— its food systems cannot keep up with growing demand. Consequently, undernutrition contributes to a child mortality rate of 28%, with stunting affecting 38% of children under the age of five (UNICEF).
Improving nutrition is made increasingly difficult by climate change, which now impacts healthcare, the environment, and the productivity of many crops and livestock. Thanks to its rich heritage of agricultural biodiversity, Ethiopia has the capacity to address undernutrition by enhancing agrobiodiversity, which spreads agricultural “risk” by growing a range of crops to meet the challenges of uncertain times. Unfortunately, most agronomic research is generally overlooked, while policy makers incorrectly assume that indigenous crops developed by hundreds of generations of farmers are less productive and unable to contribute significantly to food security. Policy makers have recently encouraged farmers to grow a small collection of modern grains to please food processors and international markets. This approach, which rarely includes traditional varieties, now threatens the country’s agricultural biodiversity and with it the survival of the country’s food production system.
Smallholder farmers are responsible for over 80% of the country’s agricultural production, and the introduction of commodity crops across Ethiopia has wreaked havoc on traditional farming systems; these “modern” grains require additional fertilizers, pesticides, and water that many smallholders either cannot afford or do not possess.
One solution may come from the country’s near past. The Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute,the largest and oldest Seed Bank in Africa, holds 6,000 accessions (different varieties) of teff, 7,000 accessions of durum wheat, and 12,000 accessions of barley. Can the bio-regional genetics of these seeds provide clues that may aid in the struggle against climate change? The international coalition behind Seeds for Needs thinks so. Led by Bioversity International, Scuola S. Anna in Pisa, Mekelle University, Amhara Region Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI) and the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI), this project has adopted a holistic, participatory action-driven approach to researching whether traditional varieties can help solve today’s agricultural challenges. The program, which has grown to include GIZ, the World Bank, the Integrated Seed System Development (a Dutch initiative), and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, uses extremely simple yet effective logic: if 4000 ancient grain varieties kept in the National Gene Bank’s seed vaults survived and adapted for millennia on farmers’ fields, they may provide benefits if returned to the very farmers who first developed and saved them. In Tigrinya, the farmers have a name for the initiative: Wehabit … or “We got it back”.
By Carlo Fadda, Bioversity International
AN EVERYDAY SMALLHOLDER FARMER IN ETHIOPIA often contemplates many variables: At what point in the season should I plant? When the rain comes, how long will it last? Did I plant at the right time? If I didn’t, will I have enough spare seeds to plant twice? Instead of depending on one crop, what else should I plant to manage risk? And finally, How will I feed my five children and my animals, which are so crucial for the livelihood of my family?
These nagging questions become even more challenging in the face of climate change. Seasons are increasingly unpredictable, rain is much less frequent, temperatures are rising, and wind conditions are erratic. To make matters worse, smallholders do not receive subsidies that would protect them in case of crop failure. The lack of government assistance makes farming in Tigray a very risky business; yet, thousands of families rely on farming for their food security.
Fortunately for Ethiopian farmers, they’ve cultivated their lands for more than 5,000 years, and have developed strategies that adapt to change: they rotate not only crops but plant varieties, use manure and compost to maintain soil fertility, and observe nature when determining their planting times. While many traditional strategies still work, the incredible speed at which their climatic conditions change has left these farmers in need of further support.
Farmers are not alone in managing climate challenges. They rely on communities, friends, family, networks, and other groups to share their concerns and seek opinions to resolve issues. The most pressing question for a farmer is: “What shall I plant?” For many decades they have been asked to plant modern varieties that left them prone to crop failure. In 2018, the year of the last major failure, an outbreak of yellow rust destroyed thousands of hectares of modern wheat varieties. In the past, farmers were planting diversified crops and varieties that served a wide range of purposes and afforded them more food security.
Seeds for Needs recognized Tigray’s crop genetic diversity as an opportunity to improve resilience and took initiative. The project promotes diversity as a risk management strategy, just as a financial advisor would advise diversifying an investment portfolio to mitigate risk. In order to identify “blue-chips,” both farmers and investors must understand their varieties. Knowledge regarding valuable crops needs to be openly available at the community level so that as many farmers as possible can benefit. In order to widely disseminate knowledge, Seeds for Needs promoted the development of community seed banks, locally-based organizations which manage traditional varieties of seeds and provide locals with farming-related education. In the past, farmers kept their seeds stored in their homes, hiding them like a treasure. The researchers of Seeds for Needs had to convince farmers to take their seeds, share them with the community, and guarantee that the seeds would be protected legally for community benefit. Ethiopian seed laws forbid the commercialization of seeds that are not registered in the national registry, but in community seed banks, seeds are traded, not sold. Therefore, community seed banks are a resource that makes traditional varieties available to farmers without violating any laws. Farmers can open an account by depositing seeds and, when needed, withdraw their seeds and plant them. Women and men, like young Gebremariam in Ayba, have been elected by their peers and trained by the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute to manage seed banks to ensure that their varieties can be available to the community even in the case of seed loss due to natural disasters.
MORE THAN 10,000 FARMERS ACROSS ETHIOPIA took part in Seeds for Needs’ first trials. Using a crowdsourcing approach, they provided farmers with 4000 seed accessions, 373 farmer grown varieties, and 27 seed varieties from international seed companies. Women accounted for nearly 50% of farmers participating in the project as citizen scientists; they were asked to plant their fields, collect crop data, and help judge their harvests according to four criteria: yield, features, local adaptation, and nutritional content. While crop research can be time-consuming work, all stakeholders in the program were motivated by the same goals: enhance livelihoods, reduce risk in cultivation, and improve diets.
Six years after the project began, the team’s data shared some unexpected results: traditional varieties were 60% more stable over time and across variable climatic conditions than “improved” modern varieties. The grains were also tested for calcium, iron, protein, iron, zinc, and phosphorus, with the “natural bio-fortification” of both teff and durum wheat emerging as potentially important allies in the country’s fight against malnutrition as well as zinc and iron deficiencies.
THE TRUE PROTAGONISTS OF SEEDS FOR NEEDS are the Women of Tigray. They not only participated in the selection and breeding of grain varieties used in the project, but also became their guardians once the program released seeds to rural communities.
Women play an important role in deciding which crops to plant, not only for markets but also home consumption. If these women only cultivated modern varieties, many of their traditions would quickly disappear. They grow what they eat, and recognize that their traditional food cultures depend on many ingredients that come from their own fields. By protecting, cultivating, and continuing to prepare foods like injera and tella, they’re also safeguarding their culinary heritage for generations to come.
Endu is a farmer in Ayba, a village in southern Tigray, located not far from the border with Eritrea. She lives with her husband, son, and daughter-in-law on a farm perched atop a mountain ridge overlooking experimental fields used for Mekelle University’s participatory plant breeding project. Like many farmers in his region, Endu is actively involved with both the research and Seeds for Needs.
On most days—when she’s not working her fields—Endu can be found preparing food for her family. This includes injera, Ethiopia’s most iconic staple food, a naturally fermented flatbread. It can be made with any kind of grain flour, though in Ayba the recipe requires teff.
After starting a fire in her mogogo, the traditional oven used to bake flatbread, Endu instructs her daughter-in-law, Lemlem, on the ballet that is Injera making. The fire is carefully stoked with dried manure to reach the correct temperature, then the liquid dough, usually stored in plastic buckets and left to ferment for three days, is slowly poured onto a steel plate set atop the fire. Lemlem spreads the dough with her thin fingers, quickly and in a circular motion as she has been taught, and minutes later, the injera is ready to be eaten.
Aside from teff, another major crop in Tigray is barley, which farmers often refer to as the “heaven crop” due to its adaptability; in fact, it’s often found on the steep mountainsides that line the valleys of Tigray. Barley is often malted, a process that introduces then rapidly halts the germination of seeds. Ameteselassie malts her own barley on plastic tarps set in front of her home to prepare tella, a typical barley-based beverage.
In the village of Melfa, Ameteselassie counts on barley to earn an income and provide nutrition for her young grandchildren. Like many Tigrayans, she claims that the secret behind Ethiopia’s legendary marathoners is the barley their mothers fed them as children.
ETHIOPIA NEEDS TO FEED OVER 100 MILLION PEOPLE; that responsibility largely falls on smallholder farmers, who, despite their limited land, produce 80% of the country’s total food production. Wehabit grains developed by Seeds for Needs can play a vital role in helping farms reach this objective and sell more grains into the market, but they face many challenges.
Consumers in Ethiopia are often reluctant to try new products, even when they are healthier and taste better, but one opportunity arose from an unlikely group: local pasta producers. Macaroni is a popular dish in the country and pasta producers rely on imported grain to satisfy demand. With the collaboration of a local pasta producer in Mekelle, the first 100% Wehabit pasta has now entered the marketplace. Producing a product like pasta is the first step to show the market that Wehabit is more nutritious, tastes better, and is perfectly suitable for food processing. It’s also an opportunity for rural farmers to grow a high value grain that is more tolerant of pests and diseases, and resilient to climate change.
by Katelyn Mann of The Lexicon
edited by Carlo Fadda of the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT
TEFF IS AN ANNUAL CEREAL CROP with thin stems, an extensive crown of seeds and a prolific wide root system. Teff is self pollinated and useds C4 photosynthesis, which allows teff to fix carbon more effectively in tropical environments with high temperatures and in drought conditions.
Teff is the staple grain for the majority of Ethiopian and Eritreans. Teff provides around ⅔ of the daily protein intake in Ethiopia. Teff is eaten in a variety of ways, but the most common is injera, a sourdough flatbread made of teff flour. Injera is eaten at most meals, used to scoop up vegetable, meat, and legume dishes and curries. Teff can also be eaten as a porridge or fermented into beer and other alcoholic drinks.
Teff is a good source of iron, vitamin B1, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, affecting millions of people around the world by causing extreme fatigue and other health issues. Consumption of teff can be used to prevent iron deficiencies, especially for those with diets low in red meat. Teff contains concentrations of all 18 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Cooked teff contains a 1:5 ratio of protein to carbohydrates. Teff’s fiber content beats that of most other cereals. The small grain of teff size allows it to cook quickly, saving fuel resources.
A teff grain is about the size of a poppy seed and grows from a bunched grass. Because of its small size the grain germinates fast, within 3 to 12 days after sowing. The grain is harvested two to six months after sowing, a short growing season that maximizes minimal land resources. Teff is harvested once a year, in rotation with other cereals and legumes to regenerate the soil in an agroecological cycle. Teff grain is used for human consumption and animal fodder; teff straw is a strong natural fiber and is used in local construction.
Teff is adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions and elevations, able to thrive on marginal soil and grow through wet periods or drought. This resilience to environmental change is paramount as the Horn of Africa continues to experience prolonged droughts that increase in intensity which leads to extreme food insecurity, malnutrition, displacement and conflict. Continued development to further the strength of teff in the face of climate change is needed to secure a reliable food source for the region.
Teff dominates Ethiopian agriculture; it’s grown by 6.5 million households and is responsible for 70% of the local diet and ⅔ of daily protein intake. Almost all production is small scale, grown by many of the 13 million smallholder farmers in the country. Ethiopia grows 90% of the world’s teff, with the vast majority used for domestic consumption.
Around 3000 years ago teff was domesticated in Ethiopia. The word teff comes from teffa, the Amharic word for “lost”, due to its tiny seed that is easily blown away in the harvest and threshing process.
In the early 2000s the Ethipoian government banned the export of raw, unprocessed grain and flour to keep teff affordable at home. This helped to avoid the quinoa calamity of South America where U.S. and European demand for the “superfood” skyrocketed prices of quinoa for smallholder Andean farmers, ensuring teff would remain accessible to Ethiopians. Ethiopian teff still made it around the world, in the form of injera, enabling processing and manufacturing jobs to stay in Ethiopia. In the early 2000s members of the Ethiopian diaspora living abroad, those who left Ethiopia during the famine and conflicts of the 1980s, were the main consumers of exported teff products. Teff farming popped up in Australia, the U.S., China, India and South Africa in use as cattle feed and to provide the grain for the diaspora community and a growing consumer base. Slowly, teff gained prominence as a nutritional powerhouse beyond the diaspora community and the Ethiopian government implemented an agricultural development program that increased teff production by 40% through efficiency measures, mechanization and increased research. In 2018, the Ethipoian government brought a Dutch company to court to sue over the company’s patent rights on teff products in Europe Ethiopia won the court case and the patent was declared invalid.
Surfing and feeding the wave of teff’s rediscovery, research organisations like Bioversity International, chefs, local governments and other institutions are working together with farmers to better understand, safeguard and promote use of the genetic variability of teff, enhance its cultivation and open new income opportunities for small scale farmers.