Israel's Ethiopians Forced to Give Up Traditional Bread

Mati Milstein in Bat Yam, Israel
for National Geographic News
June 5, 2008
Part seven of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.

The crisis that has sent food costs spiraling upward around the globe is causing Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel to give up something priceless: a piece of their culture.

Tens of thousands of the expatriates are being forced to abandon their traditional diets because of the skyrocketing cost of teff grain.

Teff, a nutritious and hardy cereal domesticated in Ethiopia thousands of years ago, is the primary ingredient in injera, a round flatbread that accompanies most Ethiopian meals.

A drastic shortage has caused the price of teff to jump by some 300 percent over the past year.

A 110-pound (50-kilogram) sack now runs at least 600 New Israeli shekels (about U.S. $179).

The price increases hit Israel's Ethiopian community particularly hard, as it is a struggling group with about three-quarters living below the poverty line, according to official figures.

"It just seems foolish to me. It doesn't seem logical to throw away so much money just to eat the same food that I ate in Ethiopia," said Ayelet Inbaram, an Ethiopian living in Bat Yam.

"We can get along fine with bread, pitas, spaghetti, rice," she said. "The preservation of our heritage is very important to me. I prepare injera and eat from one plate with my children.

"[But] I tell them how we lived, where we came from, how we walked to Israel ... There are ways to remain connected without throwing money away."

Drought and Trade

In the early 1980s, for a variety of social and religious reasons, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews began walking toward Israel. Up to half of them died or were killed during the months-long desert treks to refugee camps in Sudan.

The survivors were transported into Israel during covert operations by the Israeli military and intelligence agencies. Emigration continued, and some 100,000 now live in Israel, home to the world's second-largest Ethiopian expatriate community after the United States.

These Ethiopian-Israelis adhere largely to a traditional diet of injera served with meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables. Teff is also used to produce beverages, and its straw is used to feed cattle and even for construction purposes.

But the Israeli climate is not suited to growing teff, so consumers are entirely dependent upon imports from Ethiopia—and these have shriveled away in recent months due to a variety of factors.

A drought year caused teff production to drop in the rain-dependent country, even as its population continued to increase. In response, Ethiopian officials have reduced exports to a bare minimum to keep most of the grain for domestic use.

(Related: "Australia's Long Drought Withering Wheat, Rice Supplies" [May 29, 2008].)

In the absence of official trade ties between Israel and Ethiopia, merchants have been illegally transporting teff from Ethiopia via Djibouti and other laborious—and costly—routes.

In addition, the popularity of teff among non-Ethiopian Israelis seeking a healthier grain has driven up the cost, according to Shlomo Molla, the only Ethiopian member of Israel's parliament.

Molla said he is working to secure an Israel-Ethiopia trade agreement that would allow regulated imports of teff.

"Unfortunately, I am the only one in the government confronting this situation," Molla said. "Our Ministry of Industry and Trade also has to intervene and set fixed prices for teff."

Almost Gone?

Meanwhile, many Ethiopian-Israelis can no longer afford to eat their traditional food, and others are actively refusing to buy teff to protest the high cost and the government policies that have contributed to the shortage.

Inbaram, the Bat Yam resident, said the Israeli government should regulate the price of teff, just as it does with other staples such as flour, bread, and dairy products. Meanwhile, she hopes a boycott will force teff merchants to lower prices.

But Ronen Sanbate, an Ethiopian-Israeli teff merchant from Rishon Letzion, said Ethiopian export restrictions have created a situation in which no new teff is arriving in Israel.

He and fellow merchants are now selling off their current stock and—unless the situation changes—Israel's supply will run out.

"If Ethiopia doesn't start to release teff, I will be out of work," Sanbate said.

"We grew up on teff," he added. "When it runs out, we'll have no choice—we'll have to get used to rice."

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