July 2, 2013 -- To most, injera is a novelty encountered only in Ethiopian restaurants, but in Ethiopia itself this spongy, pancake-like bread is a household staple. Plant breeders from Ethiopia and Norway have now taken an important step in diversifying the cereals from which injera is made to help ensure the supply and affordability of this vital food.
The main issue is injera quality. Most Ethiopians prefer the taste, texture, and appearance of injera made from the cereal, tef, even though the market price of barley—another staple Ethiopian crop—is half that of tef. Barley is also the most dependable crop under the erratic weather conditions that dominate the northern Tigray region of the country, where barley is widely cultivated but low-yielding.
Writing in the journal Crop Science, a team led by Fetien Abay of Mekelle University in Ethiopia and Åsmund Bjørnstad of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences now describes barley varieties that produce injera of comparable quality to tef—and most importantly, the quality traits appear to be heritable. As a result of this work, “tef quality” barley cultivars have now been bred and released to farmers in Ethiopia, supplementing tef in the country’s national staple bread.
To help ensure the widest acceptance of these cultivars—especially given local preconceptions about barley’s lower injera quality—the researchers followed an approach called participatory plant breeding, which engages people who will be the ultimate consumers of new cultivars and the foods produced from them.
To begin with, the scientists investigated a barley line called Himblil that Kashay Negash, a farmer and breeder in Tigray, selected for its superior injera quality from a locally adapted variety, or landrace, that he grew. (Based on Abay’s Ph.D. research in 2007, Himblil was officially released in 2011 as the first barley variety bred in Tigray.)
Then, to compare the quality of injera made from Himblil and 11 other barley varieties, the scientists employed a panel of 20 local people ranging in age from 36 to 72 years old. Involving farmers and citizens in the breeding process is crucial if researchers truly want success, says Abay. In the case of Himblil, for example, her research indicates that farmers in Tigray prefer to plant Himblil over other barley varieties because it produces higher and more stable yields in the region’s high altitude, often waterlogged conditions.
What the team found in this study is that the panelists also preferred injera made from Himblil. The variety received the highest scores—very good to excellent—on parameters such as mouth feel and taste, along with tef. Himblil did score much lower on color, however, because of the purple tint to a part of its flowers, called “glumes”. Ethiopians strongly prefer injera that is pure white.
To determine whether Himblil’s superior quality was heritable, the researchers next crossed it with another popular barley variety of intermediate quality and white color, called Saesa. Fourteen families were then selected from the cross based on their agronomic performance.
Of these Saesa x Himblil (SxH) families, one designated SxH-T182 earned top quality scores that were comparable to Himblil and tef. The new cultivar was officially released in Ethiopia in 2012, and represents—along with the release of Himblil—what the authors call a “major achievement for barley breeding in Ethiopia.”
And more such achievements could be on the way. Among all the SxH families, the breeders observed a high degree of “transgressive segregation” in injera quality and flour properties, meaning the genetic variation in these offspring exceeded that in Himblil. These and other results suggest that superior injera quality not only occurs frequently as a trait in barley, but could be highly heritable, as well. Thus plant breeding with locally adapted varieties, say the authors, “may have much to offer the farmers of Tigray.”
The work was funded by “Seed Safety through Diversity,” a projected coordinated by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Mekelle University. The paper’s other authors are Addis Abraha of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Mekelle University; Anne Kjersti Uhlen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences; and Stefan Sahlstrøm of Nofima—The Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Research.
Access the abstract of the Crop Science article here.