Tef – a multipurpose new crop in Israel

Adopting tef as a new crop in Israel requires studies and a redefinition of many key aspects of the crop's management

March 16, 2021
Tef – a multipurpose new crop in Israel

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture Food and Environment, Rehovot, Israel

 

Tef [Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter; also known as teff] is a panicle-bearing cereal crop plant. It has a thin culm, long narrow leaves and a thousand seed weight of 200–400 mg, making it the smallest-grained cereal [1] (Figure 2). It has a C4 photosynthetic pathway, which allows for efficient utilization of high solar radiation. Tef is highly durable to various stresses and indeed, it thrives in a variety of environments.
Tef is grown mainly in Ethiopia, as well as in other countries in the Horn of Africa [1]. The earliest known archeological evidence of tef cultivation, dating to 700–800 BCE, was found in Aksum, Ethiopia where it was presumably domesticated. The tef crop occupies over 3 million hectares (ha) in Ethiopia where it serves as a staple for the local population.

 

Tef grains are gluten-free and contain an excellent balance of essential amino acids [2], as well as high concentrations of fibers, minerals (e.g. calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, phosphorous and copper) and vitamins (e.g. vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin and thiamin). Tef is also known as an excellent forage crop thanks to its high feed quality, crude protein content, fast growth rate, and its suitability for multiple harvests[3]. Recognition of the unique nutritional properties of tef grain and forage has raised global interest in its production and consumption. Today, in addition to Ethiopia, tef is cultivated as a forage and grain crop in the United States, Australia, Kenya, South Africa and India.

 

Figure 2:  Tef seeds

 

Tef was first tested in Israel in the 1930s, and found to be a promising forage crop, however, it was not adopted as a new crop[4]. In the last decades, interest in tef has risen in Israel following the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews during the early 1990s, who continue to consume it as their main staple food. In recent years,a ban on tef export, put into effect in 2008 by the Ethiopian government, caused a rise in tef grain and flour prices, enhancing the interest in tef production in Israel. For these reasons, as well as the interest in diversifying field crops rotation, the agricultural community in Israel is now reconsidering local tef production for grain and forage.

 

Figure 3: Tef response to herbicides

 

 Adopting tef as a new crop in Israel requires studies and a redefinition of many key aspects of the crop's management, some of which have been studied in our laboratory over the last few years:
1. Sowing time - The establishment, development and productivity of tef, sown every one to two months across two consecutive years, were studied [5]. Results obtained from this study,suggest that tef should be sown in Israel during the spring (March–April) and grown during the hot and dry spring and summer seasons;irrigation is therefore essential


2. Weed control (in collaboration with Prof. B. Rubin) - A platter of herbicides, recommended for weed control in other cereal crops (wheat, corn, sorghum) were tested on pot-grown tef plants at various doses [5] (Figure 3). Selected herbicides were also tested under field conditions. A number of herbicides, suitable for weed control in tef at pre- and post-emergence application were identified.


3. Mineral nutrition (in collaboration with Dr. U. Yermiyahu)- The responses of tef to various levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium fertilization applied via drip irrigation (fertigation) was studied in pots and in the field[6]. Optimal levels of mineral application were determined and need to be confirmed in additional experiments.


4. Genetic diversity and selection – A large collection of tef genotypes propagated and genetically stabilized using the ”single seed dissident” approach [7]. A diversity panel consisting of 280 lines was tested in different environmental conditions across three years (Figure 4). This panel is being used for further morpho-physiological and genetic studies as well as for selection of lines most suitable for cultivation in Israel.

 

5. Lodging - The major yield-reducing problem in tef is lodging, which can cause as much as 35% yield losses. Lodging, defined as the permanent displacement of the stem from the vertical position (Figure 5), is caused by an inability of either shoot or root tissues to support the plant against external forces (rain, wind etc.). Our recent published paper reported that lower sowing density reduced tef lodging without any yield penalty [8]. An accurate mechanical sowing of high-quality seeds can enable the establishment of the optimal crop density, which will in turn reduce lodging and improve productivity.


Figure 4: Field-testing of tef

 

Ongoing studies: Optimizing the irrigation regime is an important step towards the establishment of tef as a commercial crop in Israel. Aside from its effect on plant performance, water is also a major input in tef production and hence it has a crucial impact on profitability. In our current studies we characterized the impact of various irrigation regimes on tef grain and forage yield and quality. In another study, we aim to Identify the genomic control of major traits in tef including lodging, drought tolerance and forage quality.

Our previous studies and small-scale commercial production demonstrated that tef is a promising candidate as a new grain and forage crop for the Israeli agriculture. A breakthrough in tef production in Israel requires further development of the crop management practices and selection of tef genotypes better adapted to the local conditions. The knowledge gained in the current study is expected to benefit farmers in Israel as well as in Ethiopia and other countries and contribute to agriculture sustainability and food security.

Selected Literature:
1. Ketema, S. Tef (Eragrostis Tef): Breeding, Genetic Resources, Agronomy, Utilization and Role in Ethiopian Agriculture.; Institute of Agricultural Research: Adis Ababa, 1993.
2. Barretto, R., Buenavista, R.M., Rivera, J. Lou, Wang, S., Prasad, P.V.V., Siliveru, K., 2020. Teff (Eragrostis tef) processing, utilization and future opportunities: a review. Int J Food Sci Technol. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijfs.14872
3. Miller, D. Tef grass: crop overview and forage production guide; 2010.
4. Horowitz, S. New field crops for Palestine. Jewish Agency Palest. Agric. Res. Stn. Rehovot. 1940.
5. Bimro, J. Agronomic Aspects of Tef (Eragrostis tef ) Cultivation in Israel, MSc thesis submitted to the The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot (in Hebrew, English abstract), 2016.
6. Gashu K., M. Halpern, I. Zipori, A. Bustan, Y. Saranga, U. Yermiyahu. 2020. Tef (Eragrostis tef) responses to nitrogen fertigation under semi-arid Mediterranean climate. Agromony, 10: 1870.
7. Ben-Zeev, S.; Bimro, J.; Barak, V.; Saranga, Y. Phenotypic diversity and heritability in Eragrostis tef under irrigated Mediterranean conditions. Isr. J. Plant Sci. 65, 222–231, 2018.
8. Ben-Zeev S, Rabinovitz O, Orlov-Levin V, Chen A, Graff N, Goldwasser Y, Saranga Y. Less Is More: Lower Sowing Rate of Irrigated Tef (Eragrostis tef) Alters Plant Morphology and Reduces Lodging. Agronomy10,570 2020.