What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Zerihun Tadele explains:
Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
I grew up in small farm in Ethiopia where the productivity of crops was extremely low. I wanted to change this poor performance of crops by specializing in this field. Based on this, I chose plant science at the Haramaya Agricultural University in Ethiopia where I did my first degree. After working as an agronomist for several years at research stations and farmers’ fields in Ethiopia, I joined Basel University in Switzerland and obtained a PhD in Molecular Biology.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I am currently Group Leader of the Tef Improvement Project at the University of Bern, Switzerland. My group focuses on economically important but under-researched crops from the developing world. Currently we are using advanced molecular techniques, genomics tools, as well as conventional breeding techniques to improve tef (Eragrostis tef). Tef is among the most important cereal crops in the Horn of Africa particularity in Ethiopia where it is annually cultivated on over three million hectares of land.
What are the crop enhancements that you are working on?
Tef can adapt to diverse climatic and soil conditions, tolerate many pests and diseases, and provide wholesome and nutritious food. But due to its tall size and the weak stem, the plant can easily fall-over especially due to wind, rain or application of nitrogenous fertilizer. Hence, lodging severely impacts the yield, and prevents an efficient use of fertilizers. To increase tef productivity, we are developing improved varieties with semi-dwarf stature that are resistant against lodging. We are also successfully working on tef lines with increased drought resistance.
Can you describe how these crop enhancements will benefit farmers/society?
Tef is a staple food for over 50 million Ethiopians, in a region with recurring, devastating famines. Increasing crop productivity would benefit the livelihood of small-scale farmers and consumers by improving food and nutrition security. Increased tef production in Ethiopia would also substantially reduce, if not eliminate, the current dependency of the country on grain imports, hence providing a major economic advantage. To achieve sustainable improvement of tef in Ethiopia, we have established an efficient pipeline to bring improved cultivars from the laboratory to the farmers. This involves the participation of many partners in Ethiopia and Switzerland, including donors, policy makers, research institutions, and local farmers.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
As plant scientists, we have unique opportunities to address major constraints in food production. Financial and technical support from public and non-profit-organizations creates a conducive environment for us so that we can focus on research and development of “orphan crops”—crops that have been largely neglected by the global scientific community. By promoting modern breeding technologies and a farmer-friendly policy, productivity will be enhanced and as a result food security will be improved.
What inspires you about your job?
The outcome of my results inspires me most. When I introduce new improved technology to the farming community and get accepted by farmers that brings to me great motivation as it has a positive impact on the livelihood of the population.
Who is your Food Hero?
I have two heroes. The first is the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Father of Green Revolution. I appreciate Dr. Borlaug very much, not only because he was a remarkable breeder but also because he played key role in promoting his high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat varieties to the developing world. Advice Dr. Borlaug gave us 30 years ago, while I was a young trainee at CIMMYT are still in my fresh memory. My second hero is Prof. Gebisa Ejeta, World Food Prize Laureate, who significantly contributed to the development and dissemination of his drought and Striga resistant sorghum varieties in Africa.
Zerihun is the group leader of the Tef Improvement Project at the University of Bern, Institute of Plant Sciences, Switzerland.