While it is very adaptive to the different climatic and soil conditions of the country, it has a low yield of only around 1.5 tons per hectare, less than half the average yield of maize in Ethiopia. And even this meager yield is under threat from decreasing rainfall and unpredictable weather, researchers say.
Plant breeders at the Debre Zeit Agriculture Research Centerin Bishoftu, an hour southeast of Addis Abeba, are turning to nuclear technology for help. Over the past three years, with the support of the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), they have been experimenting with using different doses of gamma irradiation to create new plant varieties with favorable traits: shorter stems that make it less susceptible to lodging, shorter maturity period, which would require less water, and higher yield and protein content.
“Unlike for most other crops, which are grown in several countries, for teff there is no global breeding community or international experience on what may be successful means to achieve desired varieties,” said Solomon Chanyalew, Director of the Center and a teff researcher himself.
In Ethiopia, teff is of utmost importance: it is grown on over 3 million hectares of land by 6 million smallholder farmers.
Chanyalew and his team have treated seeds of different cultivars with radiation doses of between 200 gray and 2000 gray– or between 10 and 100 million times more than a typical chest X-ray – to create the necessary genetic diversity to select for improved lines. The radiation induces changes in the DNA of the seeds,