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Eat Pasta, Save a River

July 28, 2017
How the perennial grain Kernza can help the environment - and make great food

Can a noodle save the world? Maybe, if it is made with Kernza.

Never heard of Kernza? You’re not alone. Kernza is a new crop similar to wheat that is being developed for human consumption. Kernza, unlike wheat, is a perennial grain, and is derived from intermediate wheatgrass native to Eurasia. Intermediate wheatgrass was brought to the United States as a forage crop, to be grazed by livestock, in the 1930s.

Starting in 2003, The Land Institute began an effort to domesticate intermediate wheatgrass as a perennial crop – meaning it does not need to be replanted each year. The breeding program – which is carried out by the Land Institute, the University of Minnesota and Kansas State, among others – is currently focused on increasing yield, seed size, disease resistance and other traits that farmers like. The first Kernza variety isn’t expected to be widely available until 2019, but the drought-resistant crop with long roots has great potential for both commercial uses and to improve the environment.

Kernza is a perennial grain with long roots that is drought-resistant and holds great potential for commercial uses and to improve the environment.

It could also help make U.S. agriculture more sustainable over the long term.

Most crops grown in the United States are annual crops, which must be planted each spring and harvested each fall. In the Midwest, corn and soybeans are warm-season annual staples, but they have roots in the ground only four to six months each year. Perennials, on the other hand, have “roots in the ground all year round,” which improves soil health and water quality and reduces erosion. Kernza can be harvested and used like wheat, while cattle can graze on the forage after grain harvest.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe that clean water is one of our most important natural resources. The rich soils that make the Midwest one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world have a high level of organic matter. When the soil is warm and wet, soil microbes break down this organic matter and make nitrogen available to crops. If there are roots in the ground to take up the nitrogen, that’s great – plants need nitrogen to grow. But if there aren’t roots in the ground, this nitrogen dissolves in water and flows away – polluting local lakes and streams and eventually flowing down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Keeping roots in the ground for more months of the year – whether those roots are from Kernza or the cover crops that can be grown between corn and soybean crops – helps reduce this loss of nitrogen. That’s why the foundation is supporting the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which is developing new winter annual and perennial crops that will enhance soil and water quality, as well as provide economic opportunities for commercially marketable food, feed and fuels products.

Kernza is one of several promising crops that Forever Green is developing. Winter annual crops that can be harvested as cash crops, like pennycress and camelina, offer many of the same benefits of Kernza and may be easier for farmers to adopt.

Although Kernza production is still in a pilot phase, the grain has captured the imagination and taste buds of millers, bakers and brewers. Several small businesses in the Twin Cities have piloted Kernza (blended with wheat) in a range of products, from Kernza beer, at Bang Brewery, to a toasted Kernza fettucine produced by Dumpling & Strand.

Kernza has a sweet, nutty taste and businesses say they appreciate that Kernza has a great story that is in line with their customers’ food sustainability values. While current production of Kernza is small, companies are thinking big: as more grain becomes available, General Mills has committed to incorporating Kernza into some of its cereals and snacks across various product lines. Kernza noodles aren’t yet changing the world, but an agricultural production system that includes more winter-annual and perennial crops will benefit us all.

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