By Daniel Kandy
In this regular series we profile African indigenous crops that can improve food security and protect the environment.
Teff is an indigenous grain grown on the dry plateaus of Ethiopia, deep in America’s breadbasket, and in the valleys of Australia’s Murray-Darling basin. Its name is thought to come from the Amharic word “teffa,” which means lost, because the grains of the plant are very small and are often dropped and lost by farmers. Also known as “lovegrass” and “mil éthiopien,” teff originated in the highlands of northeastern Africa in what is today Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it has been grown for centuries and continues to play a central role in the regional cuisine.
Ethiopian farmers plant nearly 1.4 million hectares of teff annually, and the crop accounts for about a quarter of the country’s total cereal production. Teff grows very well under difficult conditions such as unpredictable rainfall and is usually left alone by pests and disease, making it a promising crop for export to areas that face issues of food security. The U.S. National Research Council, in its publication Lost Crops of Africa, noted that teff has the “potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.”
Teff is rich in nutrients, providing all eight essential amino acid, and is a great source of carbohydrates and fiber. It is also high in the nutritionally important minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron, barium, and thiamin. In Ethiopia, teff is commonly consumed as a homemade fermented beverage, as a gruel called muk, and as a sweet and dry unleavened bread called kita. It is also made into flour and cooked into injera, a flat, spongy, slightly sour bread that is consumed with most meals.
Not only is teff good for eating, it is also a common construction material, with the straw being used to reinforce houses made from mud and plaster. It also is given to livestock as fodder, and farmers in Eritrea and Ethiopia say that cattle prefer it to other types of fodder.
Today, teff is in vogue around the world, particularly among “foodies” and people with gluten allergies, making it more popular then ever. With its high nutrient content and adaptability to different growing conditions, there is good reason for farmers everywhere to grow this multi-use grain crop.
Daniel Kandy is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.