Global Food Crisis

Israel's Ethiopians Forced to Give Up Traditional Bread

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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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