How Perennial 'Super-Wheat' Could Save the Planet

Kernza—a wild, perennial wheatgrass native to the Fertile Crescent—is viewed as sort of an agricultural holy grail, and could potentially solve a list of daunting challenges while feeding humans and livestock on a mass scale.
October 7, 2016, 9:00pm
Photo courtesy of Don Wyse.

The formula that American farmers employ to sustain the foundation of the nation's food system is simple and time-honored—plow then plant, and in three months, harvest and sell.

Milk flows, bacon sizzles, and 300 million people and the nation's livestock dine.

However, cracks in the base are appearing, and the problems are pretty clear. For three months, America's heartland is covered with life, but for the next nine, the land sits dormant and barren. It doesn't take Squanto to recognize the inefficiency. Without root systems holding soil in place, the lifeless earth is subject to erosion—around ten million acres of Iowa farmland has washed into the Gulf of Mexico over the last ten years.

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Current practices also drain the soil's nutrients while crops are drenched with chemicals that pollute fresh water. The whole process is fueled by petroleum, and agriculture's huge role in global warming is clear.

With the world's population on pace to break ten billion around the end of century, the current agriculture system is unsustainable.

And that's why Kernza—a wild, perennial wheatgrass native to the Fertile Crescent—is viewed as sort of an agricultural holy grail. The crop is under domestication in the US and can potentially do more than patch the cracks. It provides an entirely new, stronger, more sustainable foundation for the American food system.

Dubbed a "superwheat" by some, Kernza can potentially solve a list of daunting challenges while feeding humans and livestock on a mass scale. It prevents erosion and replenishes the ground's nutrients. It drastically reduces the cost of farming, the energy needed to farm, and the need for petroleum. That slows global warming, and Kernza requires no pesticides, thus potentially making organic farming much more cost effective.

"When you think in terms of sustainability, it's the best system there is. Everything is a baby step, but this is a giant step, even though nobody is recognizing it yet. It's bigger than landing on the moon," says Richard Andres, a farmer who's growing an acre of Kernza for research purposes at Chelsea, Michgan's Tantre Farms.

wysephoto

Don Wyse of the University of Minnesota's Forever Green initiative. Photo courtesy of Don Wyse.

So how exactly does the wonder-crop work?

Kernza is a perennial, so if you plant it once, it returns for several seasons. It's the first vegetation to turn green each spring, and it's harvested earlier. But even after the first harvest, it continues sucking CO2 out of the air, creating biomass, and replenishing the soil. It can then be used as livestock graze or cut for hay.

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While corn and soybeans' shallow roots die off during the winter, Kernza's root system stretches up to 12 feet, helping it survive the cold. The dense roots absorb nutrients buried deeper in the ground and hold in place soil that would otherwise erode.

Though its early performance is dazzling scientists, it's not ready for mass production. The Salina, Kansas-based Land Institute is seeking to fill the heartland with perennials, and Kernza, a name it trademarked, emerged as its leading crop over the last 15 years.

"Our goal is to sharply curtail the input needed, so you don't need to go out and till and plant each year, apply a bunch of chemicals and fertilizers and pesticides—we want get to the point where farming mimics the prairie in the world's natural ecosystem," Scott Seirer, the Land Institute's managing director, tells MUNCHIES.

The University of Minnesota's Forever Green initiative is partnering with the Land Institute and working to determine how to grow, harvest, and manage Kernza while ensuring it's profitable. Without revenue, Kernza stalls, but Forever Green's Don Wyse says their work is piquing the interest of General Mills, Pepsi, and Kellogg's.

"Without those types of players, we won't change the landscape. With corn and soybeans, it's the big food lots driving the planting of those crops. It isn't just a farmer's decision, so we need to have those larger farms planting crops that have a market," he tells MUNCHIES.

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But the grain is mostly useless if it tastes gross. Fortunately, it doesn't, says Zachary Golper, who runs Brooklyn's Bien Cuit bakery and is among the first bakers to work with it.

Cookies and breads baked with Kernza have been described as grassy, nutty, and possessing hints of honey and corn. Golper recently made a batch of baguette-like loafs that resembled a dense German rye with a nutty flavor and bitter tones that he says can be covered up with a little honey. What's most fascinating, Golper adds, is that the taste partly depends on the roots' depth, so it can vary from year to year.

With the sustainability movement picking up steam, more chefs are interested in Kernza. It has already been a star on the menu at San Francisco's The Perennial, a restaurant focused on sustainability launched by Mission Chinese's founders, and in different corners of the country Kernza is found in pancakes, beer, and whiskey.

Although Golper's eager to work with it, one won't find Kernza at Bien Cuit. He preaches patience, and says prematurely commercializing the seed could ultimately prevent the grain from reaching its potential.

"I'm afraid the people who want to do that aren't aware of where it is in the breeding process. I'm standing in the Land Institute's corner, supporting them 100 percent, and want to see it being used on the American landscape. But doing it intelligently is the key."