What makes Kernza environmentally friendly is its biology. It’s a perennial plant, meaning it grows year-round, season after season. So, farmers who produce it don’t need to plow up their land and replant the crop every year, as they do with annuals like corn, wheat, barley and most other staple crops. Plowing causes soil erosion and also lets carbon in the ground escape into the atmosphere — a major source of global warming. Kernza’s long roots, which may plunge 10 to 20 feet underground, holds the soil together and at the same time allows the plant to find its own water rather than depend entirely on irrigation.
These valuable attributes are why the grain has been the subject of intense study and breeding at The Land Institute, a non-profit, agricultural research organization based in Kansas.
Kernza is the trademark name for a kind of wheat believed to have originated in central Asia, in the region between what are now Turkey, Pakistan and Russia. The plant is short and grassy, and produces an edible nutritious kernel, much like wheat or barley.
Lee DeHaan, a plant geneticist with The Land Institute who has studied Kernza since 2003, says the crop has been grown for decades in the United States as a feed supply for livestock.
However, there is little evidence, if any, that the plant was ever eaten by people. That isn’t because the grain isn’t edible, says DeHaan. Rather, it’s simply because perennials haven’t been cultivated for food as much as annuals like rice, wheat and lentils. He explains that “the process of harvesting and replanting an annual crop” makes it easier to select for and breed newer, preferred varieties. Early farmers saw these improvements appear rapidly in the annual crops they were working with — and perennial grains, like the ancestral Kernza, were …