Why indigenous teff is being heralded as a wonder food

Patrick Rakau, a junior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council’s Animal Production Institute: Range and Forage Sciences, explains the importance of breeding new climate-smart and improved teff varieties for both human food and animal feed in South Africa.

Why indigenous teff is being heralded as a wonder food
The Emerson teff plant.
Photo: ARC
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In the early 2000s, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) bred six varieties of Eragrostis tef (teff) for animal feed. The plant breeder’s rights (PBR) of six of the ARC varieties: Ivory, Emerson, Witkop, Rooiberg, Emerald and Highveld, have since expired.

Since 2022, the ARC-Range and Forage Sciences Cedara breeding unit has collaborated with the University of KwaZulu-Natal on my PhD project, which explores breeding new teff varieties for dual human food and animal feed traits.

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To date, 80 new M4 (third-generation) lines seeds of teff have been produced. Soon to be ready are M5 seeds (fourth generation), which will be evaluated in different South African soils.

This is good news for the agriculture sector in South Africa as well as the rest of the world because teff has multiple benefits for livelihoods.

Research collaboration

An indigenous grass that grows in Ethiopia, teff comes in white, red, brown and mixed varieties. It is commonly used as food for the people in Ethiopia and Eritrea and is gaining increasing attention due to its potential to satisfy global food, nutritional and climatic challenges.

It is therefore important for scientists to collaborate to produce new climate-smart and improved teff varieties.

Several research studies have confirmed that teff is rich in many essential amino acids as well as slowly digesting carbohydrates, essential amino acids; and fatty acids. It also contains nutritionally balanced minerals, vitamins and fibres.

Many health benefits

All teff varieties have an almost similar chemical composition except the brown type, which is rich in iron and commonly used for the prevention, treatment and management of iron deficiency.

Since teff is free from gluten, researchers are conducting studies on the nutritional composition of teff and its processing qualities. The gluten-free nature of teff also makes it preferable for people who suffer with celiac, a chronic digestive and immune disorder.

In addition, teff is low on the glycaemic index, and people with diabetes mellitus are recommended to follow a diet with a low glycaemic index and enriched in essential nutrients.

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Diabetes mellitus is becoming a huge public health problem around the world. The prevalence of the condition is higher among people who live in urban areas and developing countries.

The nutritional composition of individual food consumed frequently affects the occurrence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

There are shared qualities of diet that play a role in preventing and managing chronic diseases such as diabetes. For instance, a diet with a low glycaemic index that is rich in essential amino acids, fatty acids and fibre, and containing a sufficient number of vitamins and minerals, is recommended for the prevention and management of diabetes.

Studies show that individuals who consume teff in their daily life have better control of blood glucose and atherogenic lipoproteins, which promote fatty deposits in the arteries.

A study done on mice also showed that teff can improve glucose tolerance, control body weight and regulate inflammation. All of these are used to reduce acute and chronic complications of diabetes mellitus patients.

In addition, teff has an anti-mutagenic effect and prevents different types of mutation; as a result, adding teff to the daily diet can potentially prevent and treat cancer.

Livestock benefits

High yield and quality hay at a low cost are achievable since teff can be harvested multiple times during the growing season. The first harvest occurs within 45 to 55 days after planting, depending on location and year, with the second cutting following 40-50 days thereafter.

With two cuttings under good production practices, teff grown in Utah State, US, yielded 4-5t/acre (about 4 047m2) with 10-14% protein content. Production inputs such as fertiliser, water and pest control are also lower for teff compared to other warm-season grasses like maize and sorghum.

Teff straw is the main by-product of teff grain production, a basal component of livestock diets that is valued for its high yields and quality. It is considered an emergency forage in drought-prone areas, with relatively high production.

In Ethiopia, it was reported to yield 14-14,5t of green matter/ha. In the US, forage yield was 4-6t of dry matter/ha in just 45 to 55 days. In South Africa, teff yields of 3,8-4,7t for dry matter/ha have been obtained during the late November and December plantings and maximum yields of 7,6-9,4t dry matter/ha were obtained for September and October plantings.

Proposed outcomes

More information on the benefits of farming and consuming teff for both humans and livestock can be achieved through further research. This would increase social awareness and food security, improve human health, increase hay production and improve the livelihoods of rural communities in South Africa.

The introduction of teff in our daily diets could improve the health of many of our chronic patients in South Africa. There is high export demand for teff and communities that are producing it on a small scale could be encouraged to supply chain markets.

The ARC aspires to be in the forefront of addressing these challenges facing
agriculture by conducting more improved and demand-led research.

Email Patrick Rakau at [email protected].