Research aims to improve the alternative crop teff here and abroad

Mitiku Mengistu checking teff seed heads at the Valley Road Field Lab in Reno, NV.

Researchers from the college are working with a number of partners to improve teff (a cereal grain) with the aim of making it more drought tolerant and productive under harsh growing conditions. Teff originated in Ethiopia, where it is grown as a staple grain for human consumption and as a forage crop for livestock. Recently, it has gained popularity among farmers and consumers in the United States and elsewhere for its high quality grain and fodder. Teff grains, which are very small – about the size of a poppy seed – are used to make flour for bread and other products, and packs a big punch when it comes to nutrition.  Because teff is gluten-free, it is considered a healthy alternative to more traditional cereal grains for those who wish to avoid gluten in their diets.

The primary goals of any crop improvement program are 1) to identify genes associated with desirable traits, such as drought or pest tolerance, and to move them into better plant genotypes; and 2) to optimize crop management. Teff improvement at UNR therefore takes a multidisciplinary scientific approach that includes molecular genetics, agronomy, weed science, and plant breeding. It also draws upon expertise of state, federal, and international scientists, and includes public/private partnerships.

Ultimately, researchers aim to improve the economic viability of teff as an alternative food and forage crop in Nevada and other parts of the USA, and to help address food security in Ethiopia and neighboring countries.

“Teff improvement is important for growers and consumers in Nevada, the nation, and the world,” said Bill Payne, CABNR Dean, who spent much of his career studying dryland agriculture. Before joining UNR, Payne was stationed in Ethiopia.

Basic genetic research to improve teff drought and heat tolerance is being led by Professor John Cushman, who uses cutting-edge tools in molecular biology. Cushman seeks to develop crops that are better adapted to the projected effects of global climate change. He collaborates closely with Dr. Melvin J. Oliver, supervisory research geneticist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS). Oliver has extensive research experience with desiccation-tolerant grasses.

“Teff is an emerging crop in Nevada with about 1,200 acres grown each year,” Cushman said. “Teff is now in high demand as a highly nutritious, gluten-free grain suitable for gluten-intolerant individuals. With demands expected to only increase, it makes sense for us to develop better varieties with better yield stability under drier conditions. Another advantage of teff is that in addition to grain, which is used as a human food, the remaining plant material can be used as a forage grass or harvested for animal fodder.”

Cushman’s research is complimented by researchers in more applied agricultural sciences. Dr. Juan Solomon, assistant professor of agronomy, is evaluating literally hundreds of teff genotypes obtained from the USDA/ARS gene bank, and redoubling seed of the more promising ones. Jay Davison, alternative crop and forage specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, has been working on agronomy and weed control of teff in Nevada. Davison advises a number of growers and private companies, including Desert Oasis Teff, located in Fallon. Drs. Pat and Ellen Maxon of Maxell HyBrids are providing plant breeding statistical expertise.

The research team is also working on genetic and agronomic approaches to making the crop less prone to lodging. Lodging occurs when stems break and the crop falls over in the field. When lodging occurs, a significant proportion of the seed cannot be harvested. Lodging can cause significant economic loss in Nevada as well as Ethiopia, where 85% of the population consumes teff as part of their staple diet.

Mitiku Mengistu, who was recently recruited into Cushman’s lab, worked at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center in Ethiopia, which has a national mandate for teff improvement. Mengistu hopes that working on this project will help reduce teff lodging while helping those who depend on teff to use fewer resources while producing it.

“I’m happy to work on this project because it addresses problems affecting the vast majority of Ethiopian farmers. It should also help farmers in the US,” Mengistu said.