A cereal and beers are now being made with a new variety of perennial grain known as Kernza. Proponents say this marks a significant advance for a new agriculture that borrows from the wild prairie and could help ensure sustainable food production in a warming world.
A tractor plows a field of wheat stubble on a traditional farm near Pullman, Washington. RICK DALTON/ALAMY
Some 40 years ago, Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist, founded The Land Institute on the prairie near Salina, Kansas. Concerned that modern agriculture destroyed native grasslands, he asked a question that came to define his life: How can we harness the inherent strengths of the prairie ecosystem — the natural resistance of native plants to insects and weeds, the ability of those plants to grow perennially, and their evolved resistance to cold and drought — and marry those traits to the task of growing domesticated crops for food?
Kernza’s long roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion. THE LAND INSTITUTE
Jackson, the recipient of a 1992 MacArthur “genius grant,” set out to create a new kind of farming he called “natural systems agriculture,” which has the “ecological stability of the prairie and a grain and seed yield comparable to that from annual crops.”
After four decades of breeding and testing, the institute has introduced its first commercial grain, a trademarked variety called Kernza, a domesticated wild grass — intermediate wheatgrass — that has a long, slender head that resembles wheat seeds. Described as sweet and nutty, it is now being made into a cereal called Honey Toasted Kernza by Cascadian Farms, and Patagonia Provisions — an offshoot of the clothing company — has brewed it into beers, including Long Root Pale Ale. Both are being produced now in limited runs.
The perennial grain is currently being used to make small batches of cereal and beer. THE LAND INSTITUTE
The development of Kernza is being held out as a prime example of a new way of doing agriculture that borrows from the perennial nature of the wild prairie. “The goal is to mitigate a lot of the problems inherent in annual grain farming systems,” said Tim Crews, research director at The Land Institute. For example, he noted, “Farmers write off 50 percent of their fertilizer as not being taken up by the crop.”
In a 2017 interview with Modern Farmer magazine, Jackson put it this way: “We are trying to get agriculture away from the extractive economy and into the renewable economy.”
There is a growing movement these days for agrarian reform, from grain farming on the prairie, to agroforestry, to raising livestock more sustainably. That reform has been propelled, in large part, by the fact that farming is one of the most ecologically destructive things that humans do. Plowing large fields every year causes a mammoth loss of topsoil; erosion removes 30 tons of soil per hectare per year, on average, according to one study.
Farm field runoff with high nitrogen content spills into water bodies like the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea, creating giant dead zones; Crews noted that such zones now form at the mouths of 400 rivers around the world. The widely used herbicide, Roundup, is implicated as a carcinogen. Aquifers across the United States are being depleted. Monoculture crops are subject to diseases that can wipe them out. The fungus Tropical race 4, for example, has decimated the global Cavendish banana crop — the kind we all eat — largely because they are a genetically identical fruit grown in vast one-crop plantations. And every time a field is plowed it releases stored carbon into the atmosphere — agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
While some of the ideas for more responsible ways to farm have been around for a long time, the growing specter of climate change has focused attention on these approaches as a way to sustainably feed a growing population in a warming world. Food security is a serious and growing global issue. Weeds, fungi, and pests are predicted to accelerate with warmer weather; food is becoming less nutritious; and prolonged drought and high temperatures are expected.
Just last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that the ways we treat the land, especially modern farming methods, are an important contributor to climate change…