Platform for African – European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development

Friday, October 12, 2012

Partnering and PPP to improve tef

Tef is Ethiopia's main cereal crop
Zerihun Tadele
10 October 2012. Covering more than 2.6 million hectares, tef (Eragrostis tef) is Ethiopia's main cereal crop. (Zeherun Tadele in the New Agriculturist) With a higher tolerance to extreme conditions such as drought, water-logging and pests and diseases compared to wheat and maize, tef is favoured by millions of Ethiopian smallholder farmers. The seeds are also high in fibre, iron, and protein, and free of gluten, a substance in wheat that people suffering from coeliac disease are allergic to. But compared to other major cereals tef produces very low yields.

The major constraint of tef is a weakness of the stem which causes the plant to fall. A permanent displacement of the stem from the upright position, or lodging, results in considerable harvest losses, reducing both the quality and quantity of harvested grain. The use of nitrogen fertilisers, which weakens the stem further, and mechanised harvesting are also hindered. To increase the productivity of tef, a group of scientists from the Institute of Plant Science based at the University of Bern in Switzerland have teamed up with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and Syngenta Switzerland to develop semi-dwarf varieties that will be resistant to lodging and respond to the application of fertiliser.

Hereunder is an interview with prof Zerihun Tadele (Group Leader Molecular Breeding & Genomics; Institute of Plant Sciences at the University of Bern. He was interviewed by PAEPARD following the joint meeting was between the European Forum for Agricultural Research (EFARD) and the Swiss Forum for International Agricultural Research (SFIAR) at the Bern University of Applied Sciences, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL).

The interview focused on the role of Public Private Partnerships in the Tef Biotechnology Project.

The project has access to Syngenta's greenhouse facilities in Switzerland, free of charge. "We are able to identify semi-dwarf lines in these modern greenhouses where environmental conditions such as light, temperature and humidity are properly regulated," Dr. Zerihun Tadele, the tef project leader reveals. So far, 6-8 plants have been grown from over 4,000 mutagenised lines, of which ten had inherited the semi-dwarf trait.
Semi-dwarf lines (left) have a much 

stronger stem than traditional varieties 
"This public-private partnership is very important," Dr Tadele adds. "Private companies, like Syngenta, have a lot of expertise and equipment which are not available in public organisations in developing countries. Our partnership with Syngenta has brought a lot of benefits to the project."

Dr Tadele and his colleagues launched the Tef Genome Sequencing Project in 2010, with funding from the Syngenta Foundation. While the Functional Genomics Center in Zurich has begun sequencing, the work will be completed at BecA (Biosciences in Eastern and Central Africa), based in Nairobi, as part of the projects strategy to transfer knowledge and technology to Africa.
"Sequencing does not just have an academic purpose; we want to apply it also," Tadele states. "Many times we had problems identifying and isolating genes using the TILLING (Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes) technology, but when we have the genome sequence we can easily isolate the gene."
In addition, tef is a hardy plant, and sequencing the genome could reveal why tef has a higher tolerance than other major crops to drought, water-logging and pests and diseases. When complete, the genome sequence will be made freely available for public use so that it can be used by scientists to identify traits that will directly benefit African farmers.

New Approaches to Plant. Breeding of Orphan Crops in Africa:
Proceedings of an International Conference
19-21 September 2007, Bern, Switzerland.
Extract: (page 17-18)

In the near term, the opponents of plant biotechnology in the developing world will continue to win their propaganda war. They have the passion and the resources, both money and time, that are not matched by anything in the public or private sector. The big corporations are not willing to invest much on this issue, as they see relatively few profits in developing world agriculture at this time. 

Developed world agricultural organizations are mostly devoted to serving their clients, the nation’s farmers, ag businesses and consumers, and only give token attention to the developing world. The scientists who work in plant genetics and biotechnology understand the current travesty, but have no serious lobbying capability. Moreover, scientists who take any stand on any controversial issue can risk their credibility, and their careers, because we are expected to be “above the fray”. For most U.S. scientists, for instance, any time spent on developing world issues (whether doing the science or advocating for more commitment to the problem) is time taken away from the research and teaching that will earn promotions and research support. 

 As scientists, we need to exit our comfort zones to both educate and advocate for crop biotechnology in the developing world. We may receive no rewards, and will certainly receive a hostile reception in some quarters. But this activism should be viewed as an obligation of the privileged lives we lead, motivated by the next experiment and the next discovery, rather than by wondering where the next meal will come from.

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