Tef cereal improvement for Ethiopia

Ethiopia Tef Crop

Tef cereal improvement for Ethiopia

Syngenta Foundation supports the University of Bern in the development of dwarf tef plants. The aim is to raise the yields of this important cereal for Ethiopia.

Watch our film about the tef project, released in April 2016.

In August 2017, we committed to continuing our support through to 2028. Here is the Bern media release in English sowie auf Deutsch.

In January 2018, Euphytica published Technology generation to dissemination: lessons learned from the tef improvement project

Why tef?

  • Tef (Eragrostis tef, sorghum/millet family) is the most important cereal in Ethiopia, where about 85% of the population lives in rural areas,
  • The crop adapts excellently to Ethiopian climatic and soil conditions. Tef grows better than other cereals both in drought and water-logged conditions,
  • The seeds contain high protein levels and are free of gluten, which is very important for people with a gluten allergy. 

The challenges

  • Tef is an African "orphan" crop, meaning that it has not been the subject of much research and development work,
  • "Lodging" is the major problem: tef has tall, tender stems which easily fall over,
  • The average tef yield is much lower than for most other cereals. 

Project objectives and activities

The Foundation is working with the University of Bern, Switzerland, to develop shorter, “dwarf” tef plants. The breeding of semi-dwarf cultivars in major crops like wheat and rice contributed to their huge yield increases during the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s.

The project started at the end of 2006 with the support of the Syngenta Foundation. Its main focus is to:

  • Develop proof of concept and comparison of tef with other crops,
  • Create a population of several thousand tef mutants,
  • Identify readily accessible dwarf genes,
  • Establish appropriate PCR technologies,
  • Identify dwarf mutants in large-scale phenotyping of the mutant population, with the help of Syngenta in Switzerland.

TILLING technology

So far, conventional breeding of tef has not led to significant genetic improvement. To address this challenge, the team in Bern, led by Ethiopian researcher Zerihun Tadele, is using a technology called TILLING (Targeting Induced Local Lesions IN Genomes). This novel non-transgenic, plasma renin concentration (PRC)-based method is designed to identify and introduce hereditable genetic variation in genes that affect the relevant traits. Scientists have already used TILLING successfully to improve crops such as corn, barley, and wheat.

  • The project's own website is www.tef-research.org.
  • The BBC featured tef in April 2015 - including comments by project leader *Zerihun Tadele.
  • In 2014, the Tef R&D team published the cereal's genome and transcriptome and reviewed the genomic research.
  • Here's some "Tef Talk" from Zerihun Tadele in International Innovation.
  • Earlier in 2014, Switzerland's Le Temps wrote about the project (in French).
  • Here is a 2013 (YouTube) film made for Switzerland's "SystemsX" public research initiative.
  • Read a 2012 paper on sustainable agriculture by Zerihun Tadele. Sections 6.2. and 7.11 look at tef.
  • Watch a 2012 interview with Tadele hosted by PAEPARD (the Platform for African-European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development).
  • Here's what one of Switzerland's Sunday papers said about Ethiopian agriculture in June 2012, including an interview with the tef project leader (in German).
  • The African Techonology Development Forum Journal devoted an entire issue to so-called "orphan crops" - including a chapter on the tef project.
  • Read the book: The economics of teff: Exploring Ethiopia’s biggest cash crop from The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Our Tef project is mentioned.