Some people work to save the world, not make it worse

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

If you, like me, have a tendency to worry about climate change, overpopulation, floods, fires, loss of farmland to urbanization, mass migration because of all these things and most governments ignoring it all for power grabs and other political idiocy that does not advance and protect humankind and its planet…it’s comforting to come upon news of gains being made in at least one of these problem areas.

Kernza, a new/old grain, might be one of the answers to loss of tillable land, overpopulation and famine. At a tiny non-profit in the middle of Kansas, scientists work on developing an intermediate wheat that is a perennial rather than an annual.

Perennial means that the plant returns on its own each year (at least for two years, sometimes forever); we don’t have to gather its seeds and plant it ourselves each spring. This means it doesn’t need to be tilled either. We just have to harvest and let it come in again next year, like wildflowers.

At the Kansas Prairie Land Institute, scientists plant, select, replant intermediate wheatgrass, a perennial also called Kernza. It is originally from eastern Europe and Russia, brought to this hemisphere in the early twentieth century and studied first, in the 1980s, by the prestigious Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania and since the late 1990s, at the Land Institute.

The grain has been grown experimentally at the institute and on small farms around the country, mostly in the northern tier of the U.S. and in Canada, and is being made into bread and beer.

General Mills granted the nice sum of $500,000 to the institute to study and grow this plant that could revolutionize the food conglomerations of the world that are depleting tillable land and infiltrating forestland. Something needs to be done, because fertilizers used as facsimiles of organically fertile soil are not going to make it work forever – fertilizers are like a feeding tube on a human: it will keep one alive but at a cost of quality of life.

A perennial plant itself fertilizes the soil by sending its roots 10 feet down. This intense root system holds the soil in place like the prairie flowers and grasses do, and like those perennials, it restores the soil’s natural fertility by increasing soil carbon.

The product is also used as forage for farm animals, as habitat for wild animals and birds, as land restoration in areas ruined by earth moving and mining. And this wheat relative has less gluten than its annual cousin which has come to plague many a human digestive system.

General Mills came out with a cereal called Kernza, sold so far only in select places like Whole Foods. Patagonia Provisions makes a beer out of it – Long Root Ale – brewed by Hopwords Urban Brewery in Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA. (I found no outlets for the pale ale other than in the West and Northwest.) The grain is used mostly in experimental kitchens and new-age restaurants trying it out in breads, alone or with regular wheat. It is sold at the Birchwood Café in Minneapolis.

Rodale and the Land Institute are instigators of an agricultural revolution. The Kernza grain is the first perennial they’ve marketed, but following it are perennial rice, perennial sorghum, perennial legumes and perennial sunflowers (for their seed oil).

In an article in American Scientist, Land Institute scientists David Van Tassel and Lee DeHaan write about the cutting edge of agronomy taking place in Kansas. Van Tassel said that in talking with his mom about why he was mostly digging in the dirt after years of intense, not to mention expensive, ag studies, he told her it was because he knows that the hard work of experimental growing will help feed people someday.

In the face of world-wide concern about climate change, population growth and resource depletion affecting global food security Van Tassel believes that “New staple crops with enhanced functionality will … stabilize the world’s food supply and reduce the soil degradation that comes with large-scale annual grain production.”
Here’s to science and its hard-working practitioners who will save us yet if we give them a chance and a helping hand.

The Land Institute, being non-profit, operates on donations.

[The Land Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Salina, Kansas, founded in 1976, led by a team of plant breeders and ecologists in multiple partnerships worldwide. It develops perennial grains and oilseed bearing plants to be grown in ecologically intensified, diverse natural crop systems with the goal of producing ample food, reducing and eliminating impacts from the disruptions and dependencies of industrial agriculture, and informing cultural change through education. 2440 E Water Well Rd, Salina, KS 67401]

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