A Tale of Teff

Struck by the worst drought in fifty years, Ethiopia is in the midst of a true humanitarian crisis, one that has largely been ignored by mainstream media. In this four-part series (see: Part 1 and Part 2), the Ethiopian case study will be used to explore food poverty in a global context.

Of all the seeds to be distributed in Ethiopia’s emergency relief program, a tiny brown one called teff may be more important than the rest.  In a normal harvest year, one-quarter of all cereal cultivation in Ethiopia is devoted to teff, which occupies the largest area of any single crop at 2.3 million hectares. Teff is the main ingredient of the spongy injera bread that serves as the base of all meals. The high volume of teff production is indicative of its vital importance in Ethiopian culture and cuisine – as one native puts it, “A shortage of teff would be like asking an Ethiopian not to breathe.” In fact, Ethiopia as we know it has never existed without teff. Dating as far back as 4000 BC, teff was one of the earliest plants ever domesticated, when the people of the Ethiopian highlands made the switch from nomadism to domestication.

High in protein, calcium, and many essential minerals, teff largely remained an Ethiopian secret until the latter half of the twentieth century. With globalization and the spread of an Ethiopian diaspora, teff has recently found itself an unexpected victim of the Western media’s “superfood” craze. It has been hailed as a superfood that helps with blood sugar management, weight control, and colon health; notably, all are chronic conditions that mostly afflict affluent populations.

And so, at one point almost exclusively cultivated in Ethiopia, teff can now be found on approximately 250,000 acres of United States soil, largely concentrated in the Midwest and Southeastern states. Teff cultivation is inconspicuously becoming a lucrative venture – from 2013 to 2014, teff producers saw a 58% growth in sales. While most of American teff production is used for livestock forage, there is a growing consumer base demanding teff as a gluten-free grain option.

The Teff Company, founded by Wayne Carlson in Idaho, has led the charge in supplying teff-based food demand. Carlson brought the grain back after a trip to Ethiopia in the early 1970s, and has since persuaded farmers in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada to grow teff on contract for the Teff Company. Business was kept afloat by the Ethiopian diaspora in America, seeking the familiar tastes of home.

Oregon State University research agronomist Rich Roseberg comments that Carlson was a visionary in seeing potential in teff as a grain for human consumption:  “Mr. Carlson for a long time was the only one interested in it. He recognized the value of teff -— at least for teff grain — long before any of the rest of us did.” While Roseberg was speaking of the American context, it is important to be mindful of the ancient Ethiopian history of teff cultivation and its cultural significance.

Beyond the faintest tint of appropriation, teff plays an interesting role in the humanitarian crisis of Ethiopia today. Today, a typical USAID food basket that is sent to areas of need includes a grain (e.g., flour, rice, or bulgur), a pulse (e.g., beans or lentils), and oil. Baskets are designed to mirror local diets as much as possible, and so it is not inconceivable that teff grown in Idaho is currently feeding starving teff farmers in Ethiopia. To the average American, the irony of this situation is entirely unperceived. Self-aware American consumers frequently question where their food is coming from – who is farming their vegetables, are they being paid a fair wage, is the farming done sustainably, etc. – and yet very few Americans question where their food is going.

The American food system is intimately twisted into every aspect of Ethiopia’s current food crisis, whether that is through the 30-year-long emergency food aid or the recent and abrupt explosion of teff cultivation. The fate of its superfood cousin quinoa is enough reason to take pause – over the past few years, quinoa has become so popular on the global market that many people in its native countries, such as Peru and Bolivia, can no longer afford to buy it. The role of the American consumer in food matters is often ethically ambiguous; yet what remains unambiguous is the responsibility of American consumers to be aware of the global food system in which we participate every day.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on November 10, 2016.


Related posts