Scientists at the Land Institute have been working for decades to develop new perennial grains that approach the yields of traditional annuals.
NEW YORK TIMES
A few weeks ago at the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kan. — a celebration, essentially, of true sustainability — I sat down with Wes Jackson to drink rich beer and eat delicious, chewy bread made from the perennial grain Kernza. The Kernza we ate was cultivated at the Land Institute, the festival’s sponsor and the organization Jackson founded here 37 years ago.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
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At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas. Clearly he was back then as well, when he became determined to change the face of agriculture from being dependent upon annual monoculture (that is, planting a new crop of a single plant each year) to one that includes perennial polyculture, with fields containing varieties of mutually complementary species, planted once, harvested seasonally but remaining in place for years.
Jackson has a biblical way of speaking: “The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” he says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.
Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we’ve plowed the soil, planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time.
In an essay he published 26 years ago, called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: by losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today.
That’s fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we’ll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble,” he says of industrial agriculture. “We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.”
Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: “That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn’t have soil erosion, it’s not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around you’ll see that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that’s nature’s instruction book.” In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one member suffers.
When Jackson founded the Land Institute, he predicted that a prairie-like system capable of providing food for humans would be viable in 50 to 100 years. About 15 years short of the near end of that spectrum, there is definite progress, most notably in the form of Kernza, which is not yet sold commercially but has been domesticated in Salina and elsewhere.
Kernza is just the beginning. In addition to domesticating wild food-producing species, the Land Institute staff has taken on a far more challenging task: converting annuals into perennials. Perenniality is a complex trait, controlled by multiple genes. Perennials put more energy into their roots and less into flowers and seeds and greens, they send reserve energy into storage to wake up in the spring and they seldom die.
To perennialize an annual may take decades or even longer. The work might go faster if Jackson had adequate funding; he’d consider himself fully funded for the next 30 years with about one-third of one year’s federal subsidy for producing ethanol.
If Jackson’s followers are successful, we could see prairies producing different kinds of foods in commercial quantities with little or no chemical applications, irrigation, annual reseeding, tillage or tending; the work would be maintenance and harvesting. Creating the right plants for these habitats will take time, so much that we may not see the benefits in our lifetimes but, as Jackson says, “If you think you’re going to complete your life’s vision in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Although they expect the research to take decades more, one somewhat symbolic milestone was reached this year.
Perennial pancakes, anyone?
At the Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival this past weekend, folks who stopped in at the bookstore had an opportunity to buy a 1-pound sack of Kernza, the trademarked name of a type of perennial intermediate wheatgrass developed at the Land Institute.
This marked the first time grains developed at the Land Institute have been available to the public, managing director Ken Warren said.
Over the past couple of years, small amounts of Kernza flour have been available to people working at the Land Institute, who have experimented with it in cookies, cakes and tortillas, said Lee DeHaan, a plant breeder working on perennial wheat development.
The grain has a relatively low gluten content, DeHaan said, so it doesn’t work well in bread unless it’s used with wheat flour.
A different breed
So what is Kernza?
“It’s called ‘wheatgrass,’ it has ‘wheat’ in the name, but it’s no more like wheat than rye is,” DeHaan said. “It’s like Grape Nuts, which don’t have grapes or nuts in them. It’s a different species, but it looks vaguely like wheat.”
And like wheat, it can trace its roots (ha-ha) back to the region that includes Turkey and Afghanistan, DeHaan said.
Decades ago, the USDA collected hundreds of varieties of grasses from that part of the world, bringing them back to the United States intending to test their use as forage for livestock.
The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania — better known to many for book publishing, including “An Inconvenient Truth” — began sifting through those hundreds of varieties in the 1990s, pursuing its own research into perennial wheat.
Rodale eventually phased out that research, and the Land Institute acquired some of its seed samples.
Rather than trying to turn modern annual wheat back into a perennial, DeHaan explained, he’s working to take an existing perennial grass and turn it into a productive food source.
The wheatgrass DeHaan is working with has immense genetic diversity, he said, and that’s quickly obvious walking through a test plot; some plants are taller than others, some have thicker stalks and some have larger seed heads.
It’s quite different from the uniformity of a modern row crop, which DeHaan explains has been through a “genetic bottleneck,” and had most of that genetic diversity stripped away in pursuit of the best yield.
The Land Institute has two experimental plots, with 2,400 Kernza plants in each plot.
Because it’s a perennial and perennials tend to grow more slowly than annuals, DeHaan waits until the second year before evaluating each individual plant for traits such as yield, seed size, resistance to “shattering” and even total mass.
“There’s lots of genetic variation, so it’s easier to make progress,” he said.
In seven years, he’s been through just three generations, and though it might seem working with perennials would be slower than working with annuals, DeHaan said there are advantages, as well.
For example, when he finds a specific plant out of those 4,800 with a trait he wants to carry forward and cross with another plant, he can just go out to the field, dig up part of the clump and bring it into the greenhouse. With an annual, however, he’d have to take the seed from that particular plant, plant it and wait for it to grow up.
By picking plants with the best yields and cross-pollinating them with other high-yielders, the Land Institute has more than doubled the wheatgrass’ seed size in just three generations.
“When I started working with it, the typical seed weighed 3.5 milligrams,” DeHaan said. “Now, our best seeds are 10 milligrams.”
There’s still plenty of room for progress, as a typical wheat seed weighs 35 milligrams.
Of course, plants evolved over millions of years to be the way they are, and doubling the weight at the tip of a long stalk can cause problems.
“The wild plants are very spindly,” DeHaan said. “Besides yield, we’re also breeding them for thicker stalks and reduced height.”
After seven years, DeHaan said, “We’re to the point where I’m getting more plants with good seed size and other traits. Now it’s a matter of putting them together.”
It’s a labor-intensive process.
When the two experimental plots were ready to be cut several weeks ago, DeHaan said, it took eight people more than a week to cut sample stalks from each of the 4,800 plants, record several traits, thresh and weigh the seeds, and so on.
Those plants are already putting up new growth for next year, with green leaves approaching knee-high.
“Until it freezes, they’ll keep growing,” DeHaan said. “They’re also putting out more roots.”
That’s part of the point of the Land Institute’s work; perennial crops would grow year after year, establishing extensive root systems that could tap water much deeper than annuals. At the same time, perennial crops would control soil erosion, reduce water runoff and help keep fertilizer where it was put.
DeHaan hopes to expand the experimental plots to hold 20,000 plants next year.
“Imagine if you were only growing 100 plants — and it’s the 101st that has what you’re looking for,” he said. “If you have 5,000, what if it’s the 5,001st? The more plants you have, the quicker it all happens.”
Proof of concept
The Kernza flour sold at Prairie Festival came from a 27-acre plot on the farm of Charlie Melander, who planted it last year as a test for the Land Institute.
“It came up kind of slow, and he was concerned about weeds taking it over the first year,” DeHaan said. “In the second year, it did fine.”
With a sale price of $10 a pound, it’s really more of a donation to the cause than a real commercial transaction, but DeHaan said he can see it becoming commercially viable someday.
“There’s no reason we can’t have the same yields (as wheat) eventually,” DeHaan said, explaining the crop could be commercially viable even before it can match wheat bushel-for-bushel.
The fact that it can be used as a forage crop would help offset a lower yield; last winter, he said, deer grazed the experimental plots back to ground level, with no apparent effect on the plants come spring.
And, the Kernza wheatgrass produces around 40 percent more above-ground biomass than typical annual wheat, which could be used to produce energy.
Add in the fact that farmers wouldn’t have to buy seed and plant every year, and the economics start looking even better, he said.
He believes, too, that at least some people will pay a premium for the product, because it’s farmed in a sustainable way.
“Lots of people are willing to pay more for organic products,” because they’re better for the planet, he said. “This goes beyond organic.”
The nutrition profile also differs from wheat; it has about double the level of omega-3 fatty acid, more than five times the calcium, and roughly 10 times the folate.
The Kernza also has a protein content of about 20 percent; DeHaan said that’s because the germ is larger proportionally to the rest of the seed. It also has a higher bran content.
Over the next few years, Warren said, the Land Institute plans to grow increasing amounts of the Kernza.
Within 10 years, the hope is to be able to grow enough to begin supplying it to farmers.
“This is a proof of concept,” DeHaan said. “Some people say it can’t be done, but if we can do it with this plant, we can do it with others.”
n Reporter Mike Strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by e-mail at email@example.com.