The perennial grain crop “Kernza” has been generating a lot of buzz as a climate-friendly wheat substitute. Developed by Kansas-based research organization, The Land Institute, Kernza is a hybrid created from durum wheat and intermediate wheatgrass. The perennial trait it gains from wheatgrass means it comes back year after year from the same root system, providing multiple harvests for at least three growing seasons before needing to be planted again.
Farmers of course can see the benefit of not needing to buy new seed every season, not to mention the time and fuel required to get it in the ground. Environmentalists tout Kernza and other perennial grains in development as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. Researchers say such crops could be an antidote to prevent soil erosion and nitrogen loss. But the more important question is, can perennial grains feed the world?
The answer, at this stage at least, is “probably not.” According to The Land Institute, Kernza’s tiny kernel size yields only about one-third of what conventional wheat can muster. Meaning replacing conventional wheat with Kernza would require a lot more land to produce the same amount of food for our hungry planet. Tammy Kimbler, the institute’s director of communications, said their “goal is to have a yield on Kernza that’s similar to conventional wheat in the next 15 to 17 years, which in plant-breeding terms is incredibly fast.”
Kernza has been in development for about 40 years now. The Rodale Institute in the 1980s began the research and The Land Institute in 2003 began the breeding efforts. Kernza was introduced to farmers as a cereal crop in 2019. Approximately 6,000 acres are currently being grown commercially, with Minnesota having the highest acreage, followed by Kansas and Montana.
One Montana farmer reported his organically grown Kernza crop yielded about 350 pounds per acre. That compares to organic wheat production in the area of around 1,500 pounds per acre. Even so, the farmer says he makes a profit off his 260 acres because he can sell the grain at a premium. The Land Institute has done a good job recruiting brands to incorporate the grain. General Mills is working on a Kernza cereal while several brewers, such as Patagonia Provisions, are using it in craft beers. Health food brands are adding it to bread and other products.
Researchers at the Washington State University Bread Lab are also working on perennial wheat varieties. One promising hybrid known as “Salish Blue” has end-use qualities similar to soft white wheat. Salish Blue is also a hybrid of intermediate wheat grasses with annual wheat varieties, though the yields sound better at around 70% of conventional wheat varieties. End-users have also said Salish Blue is easier to utilize because it has a larger kernel size. The biggest downside is the price, as Salish Blue and other experimental perennial grains are currently only grown in small quantities and in limited areas.
Proponents argue that the point of perennial grains is not necessarily to replace conventional crops but rather use them as companion plants. Kernza can be used as a drought-tolerant, perennial cover crop that has the added benefit of producing a marketable grain. The plant has an extensive root system that reaches over 10 feet, according to The Land Institute. This not only enriches the soil but also aids the plant’s drought resilience. Additionally, Kernza and other hybrid perennials generally require much less water as conventional feed crops. Researchers are also looking to breed varieties that can withstand erratic temperature swings and flooding.