Researchers are attempting to genetically modify teff — an ancient crop that feeds more than 150 million people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa — to make the spindly, fragile grass shorter and more climate-resilient.
With Africa now at the “centre of the global hunger crisis” and increasingly reliant on food imports due to climate change and conflict, according to the Financial Times, diversifying crops away from a handful of Western staples has become a more urgent mission.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups are funding research into new teff varieties, while plans to develop new strains of tubers such as cassava are also in place.
Research might be further along if teff were a Western staple
“Some believe that, if teff grew — and fed people — elsewhere, this problem would have long been solved through gene technology,” the Financial Times reported. As scientists work to engineer more resilient crops, African staples including millet, cassava, and sweet potato have failed to receive the same research attention as wheat and corn. “If we’re really, really serious about tackling food insecurity in the face of climate change, we have to focus on those crops, which are local [or] indigenous, and making sure that they are productive,” the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development director told the FT.
However, African governments have long resisted GMO crops, according to the World Politics Review. They have concerns about corporations gaining control of the seed supply and traditional crops dying out, and point to several failed GMO projects in developing countries. “The empirical record of GM crops for poor small farmers in the Global South has not lived up to expectations,” one economics of agriculture researcher said.
Climate change is forcing crop innovation
Climate change is threatening the global food supply, forcing farmers and researchers to innovate and engineer crops that can withstand changing conditions. “Rising temperatures mean large chunks of Africa are whipsawing between increasingly severe droughts and more frequent and intense cyclones,” The Washington Post reported, threatening staple food crops for hundreds of millions of people. An increase of 1 degree Celsius in the global temperature correlates to a 3% drop in agricultural output in developing countries, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While climate change is expected to put pressure on the global food supply as a whole, some crops could benefit as changes in weather conditions may lengthen the growing season of some plants, National Geographic reported, potentially increasing yields.
Teff’s popularity is growing globally
Teff has been growing in popularity across the globe as people look for gluten-free grain options. As of 2022, Idaho was one of the biggest producers of the ancient Ethiopian grain, and the global teff market is expected to expand quickly between now and 2030.
“We see a lot of potential in developing new markets for teff as more people gain awareness,” a Teff Company spokesperson told the Idaho news website BoiseDev. While teff is still relatively niche in many places outside Africa, the crop’s popularity is growing quickly because of its nutritional value, the Agriculture and Food Security journal found.