Perennial wheat roots (on right) vs annual wheat roots
Photo Credit: Dehaan (Jerry Glover) Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

 

80-85% of the world’s plant-based food supply comes from annual plants. Every year, farmers clear their land of competing weeds, sow seeds, grow crops, harvest them – then start all over from scratch the following year. Year in and year out, herbicides are piled on to remove the weeds, irrigation is needed to sustain crops with shallow roots, and valuable topsoil is lost as the fields are tilled and as they lie empty.

Wouldn’t feeding the world’s population be easier if key crops were perennials that could stay in the ground for many years, sending down long drought-resistant roots that would anchor and replenish the soil? Most of the trees, bushes and grasses in our backyards are already perennials, after all, as are a few of our food crops – including olive and fruit trees, grapes, and asparagus. What would it take to tip the balance more in the direction of perennials?

Long Root Ale made with Kernza
Photo Credit: Perennial Grains (pwheat.anr.msu.edu)

For four decades, a Kansas-based organization called the Land Institute has been doing just that: working hard to “perennialize” wheat and other staple crops. Working with collaborating researchers throughout North America and in South America, Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia, the Land Institute uses traditional (non-GMO) selection and inter-mating techniques to increase yield and disease resistance in naturally-perennial crops, and to create perennial versions of annual crops.

Now, one of the Land Institute’s most promising projects – Kernza®, a cousin of annual wheat – is showing up on plates in top restaurants and even in Patagonia’s aptly-named Long Root Ale. Here are a few other places Kernza is making its debut:

  • Sprouted Kernza Flat Bread
    Photo Credit: Columbia County Bread & Granola
    Avalanche Pizza, Athens, Ohio, is now making a pizza dough from Kernza, which they characterize as tasting “deep with minty undertones and … a great crunchy texture.”
  • Birchwood Café, Minneapolis, blends Kernza with regular wheat to make pastries, and serves the intact grains in salads and pancake batters.
  • Also in Minneapolis, a pasta company called Dumpling and Strand is experimenting with Kernza noodles. Toasted Kernza fettucine, anyone?
  • In Bloomsburg, PA, a company called Columbia County Bread & Granola is selling Sprouted Kernza Flat Bread crackers.
  • Even the Big Guys are interested: General Mills has contributed money to the Land Institute’s breeding program, and says it plans to include Kernza in a Cascadian Farms cereal next year.

Kernza’s success still hangs in the balance. Breeding efforts continue, as the perennial wheat still produces a much smaller kernel, and fewer bushels per acre. And even when all the kinks are worked out, companies like General Mills will need to convince farmers to take up the crop before they can begin to fill demand for an industrial-scale product. Changing the food supply involves a whole lot more than just turning a spigot somewhere. That said, Kernza’s progress to date serves as an inspiring example of how researchers, restaurants and food companies can work together for the greater long-term good of our planet.

For grain lovers, the Land Institute’s work doesn’t end with Kernza. They’re also working on creating perennial varieties of sorghum and rice that will hopefully be part of our future grain-bowls. If you’re as excited as we are about the move toward perennial food crops, you can learn more about Kernza and the efforts of the Land Institute in recent articles in The Nation and in the Washington Post or visit the Perennials Grains website maintained by a community of people interested in the topic.

Write and tell us if you’ve spotted Kernza in a food or drink near you! (Cynthia)

Comments

daniel lloyd
WHERE CAN YOU BUY IN MPLS MINN TO COOK WITH ETC IN HOME KITCHEN
Cynthia
To the best of my knowledge, Kernza is not yet available to home cooks. However, you may want to read this article (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/14/university-of-minnesota-works-to-make-kernza-wheat/) which mentions some people in the MPLS/St. Paul area you might try to contact in order to find out more. Happy detective work!
Sandra Camacho
Is Kernza a hybrid grain? Is it gluten free? Will this grain cause allergic responses in people who are grain sensitive? Having a month hint is interesting. Mint alone is good for the digestive system,but not sure of Kernza's interaction on the human who may eat it. Thanks so much for the info update. Sandra
Cynthia
Kernza is what's called an "intermediate wheatgrass". It's in the wheat family -- it's NOT a hybrid of two different grains (like triticale, which is a hybrid of rye and wheat). Because it is a form of wheat, it is not gluten free; depending on the cause of someone's grain sensitivities, it may or may not cause allergic responses. While it's been described as having "minty undertones" that's just a flavor profile -- it's not related to the mint plant.
Jan Alderfer
very disappointing news, now I have another ingredient to lookout for. I cant eat oats bec. it is a cousin of wheat. I certainly won't be eating kernza
Tim Magner
Kernza is going to help change the world. It (along with other perennials) solves the 10,000 year problem of agriculture. There's nothing disappointing about it. Perennial polycultures are the most exciting things happening in the world.
Nita
Is kernza better when I'm sensitive to wheat?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Nita -- Kernza is a type of wheat, so depending on the cause and severity of your grain sensitivity, it may or may not cause a response. We recommend that you consult your doctor or dietician for advice on your particular sensitivity.
JJOHN
Since Kernza is a part of the wheat family, would this be considered Whole Grain?
Caroline-WGC
Hi JJohn -- The variety of wheat itself does not tell you whether the grain is whole or refined. As with any other grain ingredient, Kernza is considered a whole grain as long as it still has all three original parts of its kernel – bran, germ, and endosperm – present in their original proportions. However, if any part of the Kernza kernel is removed during processing, it no longer counts as a whole grain ingredient.
JJOHN
How does it work since Kernza requires dehulling? The germ, bran and endosperm aren't intentionally removed during this process, just as it would be for Buckwheat once that's dehulled or Barley. Thank you, I appreciate your reply!
Caroline-WGC
Most grains naturally grow inside an inedible hull, which has to be removed prior to consumption. This hull is not considered part of the grain kernel itself, and removing it does not impact the bran, germ or endosperm of the grain. A dehulled grain counts as a whole grain because none of the grain's three edible parts have been removed -- the kernel is still whole.
Marlene
Where can I get seed to pant kernza?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Marlene -- We recommend reaching out to the folks at The Land Institute (https://landinstitute.org) or the University of Minnesota (http://sustainablecropping.umn.edu/kernza) -- both places that are actively growing and developing kernza.
Claudia
Since Kernza is considered more of a grass, should those with Thomson grass allergies be conserned?
Caroline-WGC
Hi Claudia – We are not medical professionals so we highly recommend that you reach out to your doctor or allergist for information about your how your grass allergies might affect your diet. That said, all cereal grains (including oats, wheat, corn, sorghum, millet, rye, etc.) are in a category of plants called grasses. My understanding is that most grass allergies are caused by the pollen of the plant, rather than by the seed or grain and I suspect that if you do not have a reaction to other cereal grains that kernza would not be an issue either. However, it’s always best to check with your doctor since they know the specifics of your allergy and can offer you informed medical advice.
connie
We are currently growing Bruehl wheat on 160 acres of dryland. It is resistant to snow mold, stripe rust and Hessian fly. How does Kernza compare with that? We can currently only plant every other year.
Caroline-WGC
Hi Connie -- Those are great questions. We recommend reaching out to the researchers and crop scientists at the Land Institute in Kansas (https://landinstitute.org) for those answers, as I'm sure pest and disease resistance have been a large part of their research and development work.
Simone
Kerna is an hybryd plant made by genetic engineering??
Caroline-WGC
Hi Simone -- Plant breeders use traditional cross-breeding and selection techniques (not GMOs) to create varieties of wheat, like kernza, that are “perennialized.” They do this using the same techniques that they use to cross-breed varieties that grow stiffer stalks (so they are not as easily damaged by wind), or taller plants (so they can be more easily harvested). These characteristics are bred by selecting from the natural variation that already exists in wheat crops and it does not involve genetic engineering. The process of creating GMO crops requires a technique that is different than cross-breeding. GMOs are bred by isolating foreign genetic material, or DNA, (taken from a different plant or organism) and injecting it into the cells of the target crop in order to create variation. There is no commercially available GMO wheat, and kernza is not a GMO crop.

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