Food Writer's Diary
Behold Kernza: Could this wheat save the planet? Scott Seirer

Behold Kernza: Could this wheat save the planet?

First-of-its-kind perennial grain has potential to restore soil and sequester carbon

Menus of Change can be a depressing event. The annual gathering of academics, chefs, foodservice operators and a range of mostly vegetarian environmentalists and animal welfare advocates is held by The Culinary Institute of America and the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health with the mission of getting Americans to eat in ways that are more healthful and better for the planet. 

That’s nice, and they’ve actually made some progress. Sonic Drive-In’s award-winning Signature Slinger, a burger for which 25 percent of the beef is replaced by mushrooms, making for an item with fewer calories and a smaller carbon footprint, was originally conceived at Menus of Change. And in general, in the six years since the first Menus of Change conference, restaurants and non-commercial foodservice operations have made a marked shift toward cooking with more plants and fewer animals.   

But we still eat too much food in general and, in particular, food that’s both bad for us in the quantities we eat it, as well as a strain on the environment.

Scott Seirer

At this year’s conference we were told that we’re continuing to get fatter as a nation as obesity rates rise — 41 percent of women and 38 percent of men in the United States are clinically obese now — and that global warming is accelerating.

There’s nothing new there, but each year the Menus of Change organizers seem to track down a new calamity to worry about. A couple of years ago, during the drought in California, they explained how some of the aquifers had gotten so low that they were being contaminated with salt water, damaging them permanently.

This year, in a pleasant twist, they introduced a problem because someone’s working on a solution for it.

“The problem that agriculture has faced for 10,000 years is it started with the wrong hardware,” said Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute, a research organization in Salina, Kan. He was referring to the fact that all of the grains we grow, which make up the bulk of the calories we consume, are annual plants. They have to be replanted every year, which requires tilling the soil and losing a bit of topsoil. That’s all right for a while, but if you do it often enough, your land becomes useless, people go hungry and your civilization crumbles. In fact, some people theorize that soil erosion was a major contributing factor to the fall of the Roman empire.

Even with modern no-till methods and other conservation procedures, we lose about half a millimeter of topsoil every time we plant.

Amy Kumler

A glass of Patagonia Provisions' Long Root Ale, which is brewed using Kernza.

Perennials, on the other hand, which regrow every year, can actually build topsoil. Their roots burrow long and deep into the ground, loosening the soil and, as a bonus, sequestering carbon, where it adds to soil’s fertility, instead of keeping it in the air, where it contributes to global warming.

So The Land Institute has been cross-breeding annual wheat strains with its perennial cousins, wheat grass, and their research has borne fruit in the form of Kernza — the branded name for this new intermediate wheat grass.

“It has many wheat-like qualities — sort of a lower gluten-strength wheat,” said Iutzi, who has been hard at work cross-breeding the plants, picking the ones that look the best, shaking their pollen on each other and planting them again, trying to turn the plants from wild ones to a crop that doesn’t, for example, “drop all of its seed on the ground whenever it wants, and [instead] holds onto it until it’s time for harvest.”

He’s using conventional breeding methods because GMO, or genetically modified organism, technology, in which a gene is inserted from one species into the DNA of another, possibly unrelated, species, isn’t suitable. He explained to me that GMO tech is good for inserting a very specific trait into an organism — teaching it to produce its own insecticide or making it resistant to a specific herbicide, for example — it’s not as good, and cost-prohibitive, for completely transforming the nature of the plant, altering many characteristics at once.  

So the work continues slowly, but Iutzi has already found some eager supporters of his project. General Mills’ Cascadia Farms signed an agreement in March of last year to purchase some of the Kernza, saying its sweet and nutty taste lends itself particularly well to cereal and snacks. It agreed to buy an initial amount to allow The Land Institute to arrange for farmers to grow it on commercial-scale fields rather than test plots. General Mills also donated $500,000 to the University of Minnesota to support further research of the grain.

A loaf of bread made with Kernza.

Additionally, Patagonia Provisions, based in Sausalito, Calif., is making a beer out of it. Its Long Root Ale contains the grain, along with barley, yeast and three kinds of hops.

And it’s in a restaurant, too: The Perennial in San Francisco makes sourdough bread out of it.

Well, some of the wheat in the bread comes from Kernza.

Restaurant founder Anthony Myint, who also founded Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth restaurants, said the bread has 20 percent to 30 percent Kernza, depending on the properties of each shipment.

“In an ideal world, it would be a 100-percent loaf, but I think it has to be delicious,” Myint said.

Not that Kernza’s not tasty. Myint says it tastes, “for lack of a better description, grassy. I think that’s a good thing. It has a little more character.”

He added that he’s only heard positive comments about it.

Besides, he said, using part Kernza also sends the message that “doing the right thing isn’t absolutism.”

On top of that, there’s not much Kernza to go around yet. Iutzi said the eight bags of flour that The Perennial gets every three to four months is “a meaningful fraction” of the 250,000 pounds of the grain that’s currently being produced.

The Land Institute’s working on developing other perennial grains, too as well as improving the yield of Kernza, which is currently just at around 30 percent of that of wheat, but it’s a long process, and Iutzi doesn’t expect to have a crop that can actually replace wheat for another 50 years.

“I think logistically, the problem is The Land Institute could use another $100 million worth of research,” Myint said.

So if you have a large sum of cash burning a hole in your pocket and want to help solve a 10,000-year-old problem, now you know what to do.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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