The wheat of the future is here
In 1977, Wes Jackson, co-founder of an agricultural research organization called the Land Institute, had a vision. He wanted to rewrite grain agriculture as we know it for the good of the planet. By modeling a farm after a prairie and planting perennials, he thought we could eliminate the need to till the soil and replant year after year. At the time, he was among the few to recognize the destructive role intensive plowing and tilling plays in climate change.
The effect is like “the combination of a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami,” Don Reicosky, a retired USDA soil scientist, tells writer Madeline Ostrander, in “The Grain That Tastes Like Wheat, but Grows Like a Prairie Grass.” He is not exaggerating when he says this. “There’s a big burp of carbon dioxide that goes out with that.”
Agriculture over the last millennia has caused the loss of about 133 billion metric tons of carbon from soil worldwide, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). That carbon now lives in our atmosphere.
In the early 1980s Wes Jackson persuaded the publisher Robert Rodale, his friend and colleague, to begin the search for a perennial crop that could help maximize carbon sequestration. This was no small endeavor - the USDA estimates that farmers harvested more than 37 million acres of wheat in 2017 (an amount that albeit extreme, continues to diminish each year). The plant needed to have a sufficient yield, but more importantly, it needed to be hearty enough not to require the use of herbicides, which many farmers use after adopting no-till farming.
Wheat-like, but not like wheat
After more than two decades of intensive development, Jackson and Rodale succeeded in producing Kernza. Referred to by some as “the wheat of the future,” Kernza is in fact a separate species altogether.
Though its flavor is cereal-like, Kernza grows much like a prairie grass. Unlike wheat, which has a shallow root system and produces grain for only a year, Kernza roots extend 10, sometimes 20 feet beneath the soil and sustain growth five times as long. This trait allows the plant to find its own water source and rely much less on irrigation and fertilizer than the typical annual. Like most other perennials, it banks nutrients in the soil, helps stave off soil erosion and water runoff, and lives harmoniously beside other native plants.
The Kernza breeding program is currently focused on selecting for traits like yield, shatter resistance, free threshing ability, seed size, and grain quality. Recently backed by General Mills, scientists at the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, along with other research institutes around the country, are working to lengthen the crop's productive lifespan from five to 10 years, and already seeing growth in its seasonal yield.
Coming to your cereal bowl soon
It could be many years before Kernza is profitable enough for farmers to grow in huge wheat-like quantities. But at the Land Institute, developers remain optimistic. Lee DeHaan, Kernza’s leading scientist there, told a reporter at NPR that attracting “a large buyer that's able to absorb large quantities... will allow more farmers to enter into production.”
In the meantime, a number of bakers, chefs and distillers are testing the grain for themselves and they could be onto something. “We have people lined up saying, ‘If you grow it, we'll buy it,’” DeHaan says.
Birchwood Cafe, located a few blocks from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, is one of Kernza’s original trail blazers. Its owner, Tracy Singleton, describes the grain on her website as having “a nutty, earthy flavor” that “delivers higher levels of folate, calcium, lutein, fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and vitamin B-6 than whole wheat - how’s that for healthy?”
“Several millennia ago, wheat changed the course of civilization,” says Madeline Ostrander. “Perhaps it’s time for another rewrite.”
Takeaway: The Land Institute developed the registered trademark for Kernza® perennial grain so consumers like you can be certain you’re buying “a product grown on a perennial field that is building soil health, helping retain clean water, sequestering carbon, and enhancing wildlife habitat.”
Its website offers a complete list of restaurants, bakeries, and breweries featuring goods made with Kernza.
Bien Cuit, Brooklyn, NY
Birchwood Cafe, Minneapolis, MN
The Perennial, San Francisco, CA