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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So, an annual plant is a plant that lives for one year and then dies.
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.
… wheat, corn, soybeans, rice – all these plants live for a fairly short period of time and then die when we harvest them.
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.
We have to do this process of clearing the ground and wiping out everything to allow these annual crops to get started.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How many feet long is this approximately in this image?
In this image, the root system is about nine feet.
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.
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?
Another problem: the size of the seeds.
The kernel itself is a miniature wheat. And when I say miniature, it is miniature.
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.
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.
And that interrupts pollination and makes it hard to harvest. Jungers says it will take a lot more work to address all these issues.
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.
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.
It has superior in fiber content. It has higher protein, which is very much desirable in consumers today.
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.
How are you gonna convince farmers to plant this?
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.
Doesn't there also have to be a market for the farmer to sell to?
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.
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.
The first thing we did with it was to put it in pancakes.
Tracy Singleton is Birchwood's founder.
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.
Today Singleton's bakers and chefs put Kernza in everything from crackers to desserts to grain salads.
The grain is nice and crunchy, it's got a nice chew to it.
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.
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.
We want to be an inspiration to other big players. We want to be a support network for farmers.
Really crunchy, a little bit sweet. That's really good.
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 …
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.
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.
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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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
Mark Bittman is the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, including the How to Cook Everything series. He wrote for the New York Times for more than two decades, and became the country’s first food-focused Op-Ed columnist for a major news publication. He has hosted two television series and been featured in two others, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously.
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