Kernza: A grain that restores soil and stabilizes the climate

If you’re not yet familiar with Kernza, you soon will.

Kernza® is a perennial grain — a wild relative of the familiar annual wheat — that’s been developed by The Land Institute in Kansas. Over years of painstaking research and breeding, they’ve been working to domesticate Kernza, selecting for traits like yield, seed size, and grain quality.

Image credit: The Land Institute

Kernza can be milled into flour and used alongside, or in place of, conventional wheat flour. It is still in the early stages of commercialization, so you’re unlikely to see it on your plate unless you specifically seek it out. But the Land Institute projects that the first Kernza variety will be more widely available by 2019, and there’s a reason why we should all be pretty excited about that:

Whereas the cultivation of our annual crops like our familiar wheat contribute to climate change, perennial crops help to reverse it.

Image: Jim Richardson

We currently eat mostly annual crops: they account for about 85% of human food calorie intake. But growing these crops involves tilling the soil, which releases a ton of soil carbon (which ends up in the atmosphere as CO2). Add to that the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides of conventional farming – all requiring heavy, fossil-fuel powered machinery — and you understand why agriculture is such a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Perennials like Kernza, in contrast, are deep-rooted plants that don’t need to be reseeded and replanted each year. Because they don’t require tilling, they can grow massive root systems, which hold soil in place, prevent erosion, and improve the soil’s structure.

Big root systems and undisturbed soil equals a lot of carbon stored in the ground, out of the atmosphere. So here is Kernza’s tremendous promise: here’s a grain that can help with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The images below and on the left contrast the roots of perennial Kernza with roots of annual wheat. Kernza’s dense root system grows up to 10 feet down into the soil. Annual wheat simply doesn’t live long enough to develop thick roots.

Image credit: Lee DeHaan

The Land Institute’s goal has been to “develop an agricultural system featuring perennials with the ecological stability of the prairie.” In addition to developing perennial grains, they are also working on perennial legumes and oilseed crops. The crops they’ve developed are being grown on test plots around the world.

Kernza is now in the early stages of commercialization. The first company to develop a commercial retail product from Kernza grains was Patagonia Provisions, which partnered with Hopworks Brewery in Portland, OR, to develop its appropriately-titled Long Root Ale. This is the first beer to be made with Kernza, and it has some interesting flavor attributes specificially because Kernza’s roots reach so deep into the ground and fetch nutrients that annual wheat, barley or malt won’t. Long Root Ale is widely available at places like Whole Foods around the country, and has been celebrated as “a beer that’s good for the climate.”

This year, Cascadian Farms announced its partnership with the Land Institute to further help scale up Kernza and use it in actual food products. Other culinary leaders who have incorporated Kernza in their bread and baked goods offerings include the Birchwood Café and Dumpling and Strand in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, New York; and The Perennial in San Francisco, California.

So if you’re in one of these places, go and have a taste of Kernza — and give your support to the innovators who are boldly shifting our plates more towards perennials, deeply rooted in soil.

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