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How a new grain could help combat climate change

Scientists in Minnesota and Kansas are developing a grain called Kernza, which, unlike most of our food crops, is a perennial plant with a whole host of environmental benefits. While it’s still far from hitting the market widely, food producers big and small are starting to get on board. Megan Thompson reports as part of our "Future of Food" series, supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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  • Mark Bittman:

    Industrial agricultural practices are leading causes of water pollution and climate change. But it turns out, farming could also be part of the solution. Scientists are developing a new type of grain they say has a host of environmental benefits – and is pretty tasty, too. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson has more. This report is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Carmen Fernholz has farmed corn, soy and small grains in western Minnesota his whole life. He was an early adopter of organic methods in the '70s. So he wasn't surprised when a researcher from the University of Minnesota approached him eight years ago, asking if he'd be willing to plant an experimental grain.

  • Carmen Fernholz:

    And I says, "you know me, I like to try anything once." And so he got me enough seed to plant about two acres. From then on it was just a matter of experimenting.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Fernholz was one of the first farmers to plant Kernza – a type of wheatgrass genetically similar to the wheat most of us currently eat. It's the first grain cultivated for human consumption that's a perennial plant rather than an annual.

  • Lee DeHaan:

    So, an annual plant is a plant that lives for one year and then dies.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Agronomist Lee Dehaan has pioneered the development of Kernza at The Land Institute, a research non-profit in Kansas. He explains that some of the fruits and vegetables we eat are perennials – plants that come back year after year without replanting. But the grains we eat, which cover the majority of our farmland, those are pretty much all annuals.

  • Lee Dehaan:

    … wheat, corn, soybeans, rice – all these plants live for a fairly short period of time and then die when we harvest them.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Annual grains only have one year to reproduce before they die. So they grow quickly and produce a lot of big seeds. And that's probably why our ancestors started cultivating and eating them. But planting new seeds every spring is costly and time-consuming for farmers.

  • Lee DeHaan:

    We have to do this process of clearing the ground and wiping out everything to allow these annual crops to get started.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It often involves tilling the land: turning it over to plant new seeds. That can damage it, and release carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere… contributing to climate change. And because the plants die in the fall, the land often has nothing growing on it for several months a year.

  • Lee DeHaan:

    When that happens, you have bare soil, you're going to have the opportunity for erosion so rain falling on the landscape washes soil away.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nutrients in the soil wash away, too, which can cause groundwater contamination. On the other hand, perennial plants stay in the ground for years. They have deep roots that protect the soil and hold nutrients in place. And those roots help trap carbon.

  • Lee DeHaan:

    As we want to take carbon out of the atmosphere to mitigate climate change, as we want to restore soil health and soil quality, we find that really essential piece of that is a really deep extensive root system and that really comes with the perennial plant that's going to live in that ground for many years.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So, back in the 1980's, scientists decided to try to create a perennial grain with all those environmental benefits that could also produce lots of seeds to feed humans, like an annual. They started with a plant called "intermediate wheatgrass" used mostly to feed cattle, and spent the next three decades selectively breeding it for the most desirable traits, like high yields and big seeds. Today the new strains are trademarked Kernza.

  • Megan Thompson:

    There are dozens of researchers working on Kernza around the world. But the largest research program is located here, at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

    Agronomist jake jungers helps lead the work here, in coordination with the land institute. He showed us a poster demonstrating how kernza has a vast root system compared with an annual wheat plant.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How many feet long is this approximately in this image?

  • Jake Jungers:

    In this image, the root system is about nine feet.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Jungers is conducting experiments in 25 fields around Minnesota, and working with farmers, like Carmen Fernholz, to figure out how to make Kernza a commercially viable crop. But there are a lot of challenges. First, an acre of Kernza only yields about 25% of what an acre of regular wheat does. And those yields drop off dramatically after 2-3 years. Another issue: The top of the plant that contains the seeds is so long, the seeds ripen at different times.

  • Carmen Fernholz:

    And what happens is as the bottom kernels are finally getting ripe, the top kernels are starting to fall off and shatter. And so how do you make a good judgment on the most opportune time to harvest?

  • Megan Thompson:

    Another problem: the size of the seeds.

  • Carmen Fernholz:

    The kernel itself is a miniature wheat. And when I say miniature, it is miniature.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So Fernholz must carefully adjust his combine in order to harvest it. Through selective breeding, agronomists have approximately doubled the seed size. But that's created another problem.

  • Jake Jungers:

    We've increased seed size so much that the plant has a hard time holding up those larger seed heads and larger seeds. So it falls over.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And that interrupts pollination and makes it hard to harvest. Jungers says it will take a lot more work to address all these issues.

  • Jake Jungers:

    We're not sure how far away we are. It could be 15 years. It could be 30 years. Right now progress is really rapid.

  • Megan Thompson:

    While agronomists work on those problems, University of Minnesota food scientists like Misen Luu are studying how Kernza cooks up in the kitchen, and analyzing its nutritional value.

  • Misen Luu:

    It has superior in fiber content. It has higher protein, which is very much desirable in consumers today.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Luu says compared with traditional wheat, Kernza can also have ten times the amount of antioxidants, which can prevent cell damage in humans. All this information will be valuable for food companies and consumers when – or if – Kernza ever hits the market widely. But before that can happen, there are more questions.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How are you gonna convince farmers to plant this?

  • Jake Jungers:

    Well, one of the benefits of a perennial crop is that it requires fewer inputs, which means fewer economic investments. So you plant the seed once. And you could potentially get a crop for three, four, five years. Kernza also requires fewer herbicides, less nitrogen fertilizer.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Doesn't there also have to be a market for the farmer to sell to?

  • Jake Jungers:

    Yes, definitely. We can't just push a new crop on the landscape without a market. And as we develop the new crops, we're also developing the market and the supply chain.

  • Megan Thompson:

    One way Jungers's doing that is working with small purveyors in the minneapolis-st. Paul area. One of the first restaurants to cook with Kernza was the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis. It's known for using local, sustainable and organic ingredients.

  • Tracy Singleton:

    The first thing we did with it was to put it in pancakes.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tracy Singleton is Birchwood's founder.

  • Tracy Singleton:

    There was no– no recipes for how to work with Kernza, like what ratio to use– what's the gluten content, any of that stuff. So, it was really– it was a lot of experimenting– by our bakers and our chefs back in the kitchen.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Today Singleton's bakers and chefs put Kernza in everything from crackers to desserts to grain salads.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The grain is nice and crunchy, it's got a nice chew to it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And, it turns out, Kernza's great for brewing. Another local pioneer is Sandy Boss Febbo of the bang brewing company in st. Paul. She's put four Kernza beers on tap.

  • Sandy Boss Febbo:

    Kernza has a bit of an earthy characteristic. It's a beautiful grain.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Promoters say Kernza beer helped change the game in 2016 when outdoor gear giant Patagonia started selling it in stores like whole foods – bringing the grain to the mainstream market. And last spring, General Mills – one of the biggest food corporations in the world – produced a Kernza cereal. Carla Vernón is president of the company's natural and organic unit.

  • Carla Vernón:

    We want to be an inspiration to other big players. We want to be a support network for farmers.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Really crunchy, a little bit sweet. That's really good.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But there are hurdles, like a very limited supply. Only about 100 farmers are growing Kernza in the whole country. Vernón planned to sell "honey toasted kernza" in a handful of small grocery stores …

  • Carla Vernón:

    But that first crop of Kernza that we were excited when we were harvesting it, we were ready to turn it into cereal, about 95% of that crop failed. And I'm gonna tell you the truth. There were some tears in our offices here.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So General Mills introduced a "limited edition" version online, with the profits going to kernza research. Despite the setback, Vernon says the company plans to introduce more Kernza products, with the goal of making them widely available by 2040.

    In the meantime, Kernza researchers are plowing ahead, and farmers like Carmen Fernholz remain committed, too. In August, he harvested about 12,000 pounds of organic Kernza, which he sold to a specialty food processing company. But Fernholz says for him, it's about much more than making a profit.

  • Carmen Fernholz:

    So if I can develop a crop that really cuts back on the soil disturbance, and yet is a great– revenue producing crop, and a food crop besides– to me it– it becomes a win-win-win for everybody.

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