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approximately 1,200 acres of an ancient grain that originated in Ethiopia called teff. It needs a quarter of the water that alfalfa takes, and has a shorter growing season, says Cushman.
Plus, teff is gluten-free with more iron and fiber and livestock fodder, making it doubly attractive to farmers. So, when farmers decide to plant teff, says Cushman, it gives them “insurance that they will be able to have some farming in drought years versus no farming at all.” It’s one of a range of old, climate-resistant grains — some dating back over 7,000 years — that researchers globally are trying to revive, as the answer to food security challenges of the future.
Currently, global agriculture, a monocultural system, concentrates on a few staple grain crops — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — that contribute 60 percent of the plant-based calories humans consume. The problem? Concentrating on a few crops makes them more susceptible to pests, diseases and climate change. Research in 2019 by Dr. Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota found that climate change is already impacting crop yields, sometimes as much as 21 percent in Europe. These numbers translate to a 1 percent reduction in calories produced, which equates to 35 trillion calories or the subsistence diet of 1,800 calories a day for nearly 50 million people, says Ray.
That imminent crisis is sparking a wave of research across Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and the U.S. on alternatives in the form of grains that can withstand droughts and warmer climates while also producing more nutritional value than corn or wheat. Purdue University’s Global Food Security Center is working to improve sorghum varieties.
From 2015 to 2017, The Millet Project, a partnership between Indian and American scientists, tested small-scale millet cultivation in Northern California. Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are trying to isolate ancient strains of wheat. Like Cushman’s team, University of California, Davis scientists are studying teff. And Protein2Food, an EU-funded project, is exploring ancient, protein-rich grains such as quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat.
“Ancient grains bring diversity, higher nutritional quality, high tolerance to climate change,” says Dr. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, the former project coordinator of Protein2Food and a researcher on tropical crops at the University of Copenhagen.