Creating Better Barley for Ethiopia


Barley is the 4th most important cereal. It is cultivated globally and although production is greatest in high income countries, it is a crop that spans both the developed and developing world. 

In many low input agricultural systems barley is an important source of feed and forage for livestock and of food and drink for human consumption. Interestingly, barley originated in many of these developing regions of the world, being domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, spreading east to Asia, west to the Mediterranean and south into North Africa. 

During the last century, expeditions to collect and conserve barley from across wide range of environments in which domestication and subsequent cultivation took place, have resulted in over 400,000 accessions stored in global genebanks.  With the dual challenges of climate change and population growth, more sustainable and resilient crop production is required, and recently researchers have turned to these large collections as sources of new variation for future breeding.  

As part of UK Global Challenges Research Fund, the James Hutton Institute and University of Dundee were awarded funding for Mr. Girma Fana, an Ethiopian Barley Breeder to study for a PhD in the UK.  Barley is one of the main cereal crops gown in Ethiopia, a staple food crop for over 4.5 million smallholder farmer households.  It is grown across a wide range of environments, but yields are low at around 1.5 tonnes per hectare. Because Ethiopia is the largest barley producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, the crop plays a major role in the Ethiopian’s Government plans to alleviate poverty, as an export to improve the balance of payments. The key challenge is to maximise production on farms, sustainably, while conserving and protecting valuable natural resources.  

As part of this PhD study over 300 barley accessions, collected from across Ethiopia and Eritrea have been assembled giving some fantastic examples of variation. To gain a deeper scientific understanding of the extent of local barley genetic diversity and adaptation, Girma, along with support from James Hutton Institute colleagues has genetically characterised the collection using gene based genetic markers. This provides the means to develop and implement breeding tools for use ‘in country’ to address sustainable crop production and varietal development and on his return home to Ethiopia, Dr. Girma Fana will play a key role in realising long term scientific and practical impacts in the region.

Contacts Girma Fana, Dr Joanne Russell, Prof. Robbie Waugh, Prof. Claire Halpin.

Ethiopian Eritrean barley

Examples of the spike variation within the collection. L-R Purple, yellow, white, tan/red, blue, black.