Grains Are Going Even Greener: New Perennial Grain Kernza
- August 15, 2019
- 3 min read
Grains Are Going Even Greener: New Perennial Grain Kernza
Plant geneticist Wes Jackson founded The Land Institute near Salina, Kansas about 40 years ago. He was concerned that modern farming was ruining native grasslands and asked the question that came to define his entire 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 these 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?
Armed with his 1992 "MacArthur Genius Grant," Jackson set out to create a new kind of farming. He called it "natural systems agriculture." It has the "ecological stability of the prairie and a grain and grain and seed yield comparable to that from annual crops."
The institute has finally introduced its first commercial grain after four decades of breathing and testing. They have trademarked this variety Kernza, a type of intermediate wheatgrass with a long, slender head that resembles wheat seeds. Describe sweet and nutty, Cascadian Farms is creating a cereal called Honey Toasted Kernza. Kernza has also been brewed into beers by Patagonia Provisions, an offshoot of the clothing company Patagonia. Both items are now being produced in limited runs.
The development of Kernza is being offered as a prime example of a new way of doing agriculture that borrows from the perennial prairie.
"The goal is to mitigate a lot of the problems inherent in annual grain farming systems.Research Director at The Land Institute Tim Crews
Crews noted that, "farmers laid off 50 percent of their fertilizer as not taken up by the crop."
In 2017, Jackson put it this way:
"We are trying to get agriculture away from the extractive economy and into the renewable economy."Wes Jackson via Modern Farmer magazine
There is a growing movement for farming reform, from grain farming on the prairie, to agroforestry, to raising livestock more sustainably. Reform has been largely propelled by the fact that farming is one of the most ecologically destructive things that humans do. Soil is a good example. Putting large fields removes a huge amount of topsoil the erosion removes, on , 30 tons of soil per hectare per year, according to a study.
Other examples are just as devastating. Runoff with high nitrogen content spills into bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea. This creates huge dead zones. Crews noted that these dead zones are now forming the mouths of 400 across the planet.
The popular pesticide Roundup has been implicated as a carcinogen. Aquifers across the United States are being depleted.
Monoculture crops and subject to diseases that can wipe them out. For example, the fungus Tropical race 4 has destroyed the global Cavendish banana crop, the kind we eat. This is largely because of the fact that they are a genetically identical plant grown on vast one-crop plantations.
Every time a field is plowed into releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. Agriculture and farming are responsible for nine percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
While some of the ideas for more responsible farming that around for a long time, the growing the issue of climate change has made the focus of these issues how to sustainably feed a growing population on a warming planet. Food security is a serious, growing global issue, and with temperatures rising, weeds, fungi, and pests are expected to become worse. Prolonged droughts are also expected.
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that the way we treat the land is a large factor in global warming.
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As a result of these concerns, efforts to develop a more eco-friendly agriculture industry are speeding up.
"People are hungry for knowledge about how we're going to survive the next century because of climate change. Conservation, restoration, rewildingExecutive Director of the Wild Farm Alliance Jo Ann Baumgartner
—they are all part of that because it offers so many different kinds of benefits."
Wild Farm Alliance encourages more natural, environmentally friendly styles of farming. This is something known as agroecology. Dozens of researchers, among other experts, have signed a letter, initiated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for more funding for agroecology research. The Union defines it as a field "that applies ecological principles and relies, to the greatest extent possible, on ecological processes to address current and future farming challenges." The current authors said the current funding is drastically inadequate.
Agroecology is basically a look at the big picture of agriculture. This includes consideration for the fact that is part of larger natural and societal ecosystems. Traditional agriculture often passes its costs on to society, but agroecology is based upon "understanding and managing ecological processes and biological functions to increase and sustain crop and livestock productivity...and build soil fertility, while minimizing harmful impacts on soil, air, water, wildlife, and human health." It's not only does as ecologically sound but also regenerative. It can help reclaim ecosystems damaged by poor farming practices in the past.
This is the goal of The Land Institute.
There are two approaches to creating perennial crops: crossing a wild perennial species with a domesticated plan or by domesticating a wild perennial species, as was the case with Kernza. Kernza is the domesticated version of intermediate wheat grass, wheat's wild relative. To bring out the desirable traits, especially yield, it takes lots of trial and error breeding.
However, even though Kernza is being grown and sold commercially, the grain is only available in small batches. Last year's crop only need 1000 acres. This is due to Kernza having a yield that is only one third to one tenth of what you get from wheat. It will take more breathing to increase the yield. However, the institute is developing other crops, including rice and sorghum, though none are being grown commercially yet.
Perennialism is only part of The Land Institute's goal. Ultimately, they want to have a diverse, self-sustaining polyculture of edible plants, from sorghum, to wheat, to sunflowers
—grown for their oil. Clover could be grown to fix nitrogen and remove the need for artificial fertilizers. Without having to plow yearly, large root systems could develop that would reach far below the surface and help combat erosion. Plus, carbon would remain in the ground.
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Whereas The Land Institute works on the prairie side, agroforestry and works with forest ecosystems. Agroforestry uses trees to enhance biodiversity, prevent soil erosion, reduce wind damage, and improve overall soil conditions. Rather than clearing the trees from the land, agroforestry farmers seek to understand how trees can work with crops in forested farms. The simplest kind of agroforestry is planting shade trees. Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher, Amanda Rodewald, has studied coffee plants. She says that plants grown beneath trees can not only provide more income for farmers but are also part of a healthier ecosystem.
Some people, however, think the trees can do much more. Gloria Flora, a former supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service, runs a 65-acre agroforestry farm along with her husband Marc in Washington. She founded the TerraFlora Permaculture Learning Center. The center operates a demonstration farm and teaching center. Flora's approach seeks to create a complex forest ecosystem that can be harvested.
It is inspired by traditional, indigenous forest gardens across the planet that use techniques that have been in practice for centuries. The Mayan people, for example, still not what are known as biodiversity gardens. These are unplowed cultivated gardens in the forest that feature a wide range of crops. This includes many different types of fruit trees, among them avocado, mango, and citrus, and ground crops, including the " three sisters," squash, beans, and maize. This mix also includes many sacred and medicinal plants.
Along with permaculture principles, agroforestry involves creating a "agroecosystem," or forest farm. Each separate ecosystem is called a guild; Flora's farm includes five guilds. The guilds are based upon how well plants interact with each other to create a natural ecosystem which produces a wide range of food, naturally fertilizers, reduces pests, consumes less water, and stores carbon.
Each guild has seven layers of plants, mimicking nature. This approach solves a lot agriculture's problems. It uses it far less water, little to no pesticides, and stores carbon.
"Ecologically based agriculture is very significant in taking carbon out of the atmosphere."Former U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Gloria Flora
Permaculture also involves ethics.
"It's do no harm. Care for the earth, care for people, and fair-share the surplus. It's about consuming what you needed but not over consuming. It's about sharing resources, not just sharing within this generation, but sharing between generations."Former U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Gloria Flora