Olivia Sun / NPR
Last week in San Francisco, many food writers and environmentalists gathered to taste cereals.
This particular cereal contained an ingredient – the ground seeds of a little known plant called Kernza – which resulted from a radical campaign to reinvent agriculture and reverse the disastrous choice for the environment made by our distant ancestors.
The campaign began some 40 years ago with a scientist-environmentalist named Wes Jackson. He argued that humanity had taken a bad turn, thousands of years ago, when it was necessary to rely on crops such as wheat and rice for sustenance. These "annual" crops must be replanted each year ", which means that if you want to germinate your seeds, you must destroy the vegetation on the surface", eliminating anything that could compete with fragile seedlings. Jackson said.
When farmers use tillage tools or herbicides to get rid of competing vegetation, they inevitably erase the habitat of birds and insects. Bare soil removes and pollutes streams and rivers. Tillage releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Jackson imagined a totally different style of farming. And he founded a small organization called The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, to pursue his dream.
Tim Crews, director of research at the institute, takes me on a little tour of the land of the Land Institute. Our first stop is a parcel of native grassland. Teams make a move towards the carpet of grass, wildflowers and clover. "It's the vegetation that actually builds the soil – that's what created the rich soils that feed us, through the attic of the Midwest," he says.
These plants do not require reseeding. Their roots sink deep into the earth, live throughout the winter and send fresh green stems every spring.
The Land Institute believes that we should get staple foods from perennials like this one. And they feel pretty excited at the Land Institute these days. They actually have examples of perennial kernels to show.
The first is Kernza. The real name of the plant is Intermediate Wheatgrass, but that hit people as some kind of clumsy, so they renamed it. It is a distant relative of ordinary wheat. It has never been grown as a grain crop because it does not produce as much seed as wheat. But it is a perennial plant.
For 15 years, breeder Lee DeHaan has multiplied cross-pollinations between different Kernza plants. He cultivates them in greenhouses and fields, and selects the best offspring, paying particular attention to the size of his seeds. Larger seeds mean a bigger crop to turn into flour.
He opens a paper bag to show me some recent results. "As you can see, the seed is quite small, about one-fifth the size of wheat," he says.
But he is making progress. These seeds are twice as large as at the beginning of the project. The Land Institute recruited farmers to cultivate Kernza in small fields (at least for the Midwest) of 40 acres or more. They harvest it with standard farm machinery.
DeHaan remembers the day when, years ago, he realized that Kernza could be more than a long-term scientific experiment. He was visiting a farmer who had cultivated a Kernza field. The farmer had just finished his wheat crop and DeHaan asked him if he would be willing to try to harvest the Kernza field with his combine. "He was rather skeptical, but he was ready to give it a go," recalls DeHaan. "I'm at his side in the combine, and he's starting to fill his garbage can in the back, he was almost dizzy, he was starting to giggle, he could not believe it was working." They ended up with almost a load of Kernza grain semitrailer.
Even more remarkable: General Mills, the company that makes Cheerios and Wheaties, now says it wants to make cereals.
Dan Charles / NPR
"I think the R & D team has seen this pretty grain and thought: we can do something about it," said Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director of General Mills' organic brand, Cascadian Farm.
Over the past few months, General Mills has collected all the Kernza grain he could find, ground it and made 6,000 small boxes of grain to distribute as samples – and at events like this week's in San Francisco.
There is, in fact, more ordinary wheat in this grain than in Kernza, and it resembles and tastes a little like Wheaties. It's pretty nice.
But General Mills wants to market Kernza – when there will be more – as the first grain growing grass in the Prairies, protecting the soil, absorbing carbon from the air and storing it in the ground.
"We want to evolve that and be able to find it in any grocery store, sitting on the same shelves," next to all the other grains offered by the brand Cascadian Farm of General Mills, said Comings. "You can start being part of the climate change solution by eating a cereal, which is so pretty."
The Land Institute is recruiting farmers to grow larger amounts of Kernza, but it tells people not to expect too much, too soon. "Kernza's commercial production in 2019 appears to be testing a car halfway up the assembly line," says Fred Iutzi, the institute's president. First, Kernza is currently producing small crops – perhaps 500 pounds to the acre. In comparison, the average American wheat field yields about 4,000 pounds per acre.
But in the long run, the Land Institute also has big ambitions. "Our goal is not that it's a small niche," says Lee DeHaan. "We have problems at the landscape scale" and to have a real impact, perennial grains must cover the landscape.