"We have to look at those things that cover millions of acres."
October 26, 2017 12:49 PM   Subscribe

The Grain That Tastes Like Wheat, but Grows Like a Prairie Grass
Thinopyrum intermedium, aka intermediate wheatgrass, was developed into a crop Kernza by The Land Institute. General Mills is interested, and so are microbreweries. Is Kernza The Magical Grain That Will Save Us All?

Superwheat Kernza Could Save Our Soil and Feed Us Well
Kernza is perennial, meaning it can be grown year-round, with roots that live on in the ground through winter. Corn, wheat, and most of the other grains we eat, on the other hand, are annual crops, which must be replanted anew every year, and require seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides for each planting. But Kernza’s most important difference–and the reason so many people have been waiting for its arrival–is the way it interacts with the soil.

Because its root system is dense, growing down into the earth up to 10 feet, Kernza can respond to shifts in soil and temperature quickly, taking in water, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Annual wheat doesn’t live long enough to develop thick roots, and requires soil tilling before each planting. But Kernza’s roots hold soil in place, preventing erosion. This is especially crucial in the farm belt, where rain washes significant quantities of soil and dissolved nitrogen into waterways, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 10 million acres of Iowa farmland lost dangerous amounts of soil in 2007.
posted by the man of twists and turns (32 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
.....what's the equivalent of "Milkshake Duck" for good news in science/technology/economy/sustainability....?

....Because whatever it is, I hope it doesn't apply to this case!
posted by lalochezia at 1:02 PM on October 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

.....what's the equivalent of "Milkshake Duck" for good news in science/technology/economy/sustainability....?

"Prologue to sci-fi disaster movie"
posted by The Whelk at 1:17 PM on October 26, 2017 [10 favorites]

equivalent of "Milkshake Duck"

Take your pick:
  • "We regret to inform you that the wheatgrass has an extremely high arsenic uptake."
  • "We regret to inform you that the wheatgrass is extremely invasive."
  • "We regret to inform you that Monsanto has acquired an exclusive license and will not be bringing the wheatgrass to market."
So many possibilities!
posted by sysinfo at 1:21 PM on October 26, 2017 [25 favorites]

Man, keep this miracle wheat away from the tribbles.
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:24 PM on October 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

Tribble kibble.
posted by fairmettle at 1:32 PM on October 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

"We regret to inform you that the wheatgrass will not be found in food deserts, and is therefore racist."
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 1:42 PM on October 26, 2017

Someone should ask Jenny McCarthy.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:44 PM on October 26, 2017

I just want to know if it shares the same protein profile as wheat. Does it contain gluten? Does it contain any of the other 23 proteins that can cause inflammation or trigger allergic responses by the human immune system?

Because I really miss bread.
posted by daq at 1:47 PM on October 26, 2017 [12 favorites]

I went to the Land Institute for the Prairie Festival last year. I live in Iowa, so annual monocultures feel like an unstoppable force, and the Land Institute has some really important ideas.

Kernza bread itself is... dense, nutty. Not my favorite but I would eat it occasionally to stave off the end of the world.
posted by Jeanne at 1:48 PM on October 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

So, it is only about a third as productive as current wheat crops, and needs replanting every 5 years? Or would you just let the 5th year's crop go to seed and replant, just as we let fields go fallow / grow clover now?
posted by Kyol at 1:51 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

It would be a terrible idea to grow this in the tallgrass prairie reserve near K-State but I'd love the alliteration. Konza Kernza! Kernza from the Konza!
posted by rewil at 1:54 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

That tiny catch in my throat caught me by surprise, and took a moment to recognize. I'm not used to feeling hope right now. Rather miss it.

The payoffs if they can get this really viable sound amazing. Less fertilizer means the world phosphate reserves last longer too. Once they're exhausted, that's it for intensive farming, and the planet's carrying capacity drops fast. I'm impressed its productivity has risen so quickly. I imagine the cost/benefit line versus wheat must be fast approaching if they sustain this rate of yield increase.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 1:58 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

While the protein content is higher–20g as opposed to 16g–its ratio of gliadin and gluten is very far off from wheat, making it difficult to apply standard recipes

Do you know what wheat is for? Making bread, mostly. This does not make good bread (at least by current standards).

DeHann and his team are still working on breeding Kernza for increased seed size, yield, and what’s called a “non-shattering hull.” Because it’s a wild grass, the seeds are naturally small, which means more bran and fiber, but lower yield overall. Shattering refers to the dropping of the seed to the ground as it matures; all wild plants do this. Domesticated grain crops, on the other hand, hang onto their seeds so they can be harvested.

This is not even wheat right now, much less super-wheat. I applaud the Land Institute's efforts, but the hand-waving away of taste, baking characteristics, yield, and the ever so slight problem of having your crop drop off its stalk onto the ground, makes all this sound like little more than a bubbly press-release.
posted by Chrischris at 1:59 PM on October 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Nation article linked at the top directly addresses shatter, Chrischris. It's two years more recent, and specifically says the past two years have managed to address it.

Wonder how soon they can get the gluten content higher so you can make bread with it. I'd love to give it a whirl and compare flavors if they do.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:07 PM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is Kernza The Magical Grain That Will Save Us All?

Of course, no.
posted by otherchaz at 2:14 PM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

So, it is only about a third as productive as current wheat crops

To be fair, we have had about an 11,000 year head start on wheat.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:19 PM on October 26, 2017 [9 favorites]

Oh yeah, don't get me wrong, that's not necessarily a failing grade, but I'm not sure that there's 3x as much arable land available to replace wheat with kernza, either.

But yeah, given time and focus, get that up to 75%? That feels compelling for farmers, assuming there's a market.
posted by Kyol at 2:34 PM on October 26, 2017

1/3 as productive but the costs of other inputs seem to be less so maybe things even out on a per-farm level?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:49 PM on October 26, 2017

Ploughing is awful for long-term soil health and in the US we do it so well that "long-term" is measurable in our sense of of time, viz., 150 years at the outside.

Doing the soil survey field course at the University of Washington, we'd meet up with a class from Western Washington University and use their vehicles to visit the places in the Palouse where best-practices scientific capitalist farming is tied with Great Leap Forward China for maximum soil loss in a century. (Loss spelled 'loess'. We shouldn't have wasted it.)
posted by clew at 3:20 PM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

As an ecosystem ecologist who spends much of her time these days thinking about how we can get nitrogen from fertilizer back out of our freshwater, Wes Jackson, The Land Institute, and kernza are among our very best hopes for fighting the Gulf of Mexico dead zone (among other serious nitrogen problems that we generally just ignore). I'm delighted to see this here instead of just among my biogeochemist nerd friends.

Also, Wes Jackson came to speak at our regional commuter college basically for free last year because he believes that the stuff he knows should be spread to anyone who wants to learn from him, and it was amazing.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:22 PM on October 26, 2017 [25 favorites]

And, of course, if we stopped growing so much corn for animal feed, ethanol, and high fructose corn syrup, we would have more space to grow kernza.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:24 PM on October 26, 2017 [13 favorites]

This is really interesting to me. In 1492, Charles C. Mann mentions, only very briefly during his discussion of the Mississippian civilization, that corn eclipsed a series of indigenous North American grain crops that were mid-domestication by its arrival.

One was Goosefoot, which is essentially analogous to Amaranth. Another, whose name I can't recall, was related to Ragweed and wasn't very palatable for that reason. I vaguely remember that there were a few others, though, some of which I don't think he mentions in the book. Those latter ones I read about while doing some cursory follow-up research online.

Ever since having read about them, I've wondered if there are plenty of viable candidates in NA that would not only be perennial, but in all ways much more suited to our more difficult continental subclimates. Especially in more northerly latitudes, like the Canadian Prairies, such crops would be very useful. Not to mention that there may be grasses or non-grass, pseudocereal-like potential domesticates with nutritional profiles which may lend themselves to fulfilling dietary requirements, here or abroad, that are currently not well served.

I've also thought to myself that, with the right resources and technology, domestication today should be easier and a much faster goal to achieve than it was before (he says with no qualifications whatsoever).

Does anyone know of similar projects taking place right now? Perhaps, since you cannot patent the original wild plant, developers and researches aren't eager to publicize such work until they have a working, patented variety. You wouldn't want to tip off your competitors about a plant with strong commercial potential if you can't stop them from emulating you. Once your product's on the market, it's too late for them to bring competition.
posted by constantinescharity at 4:34 PM on October 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Goosefoot is probably more useful for its greens than as a grain. For that matter, anybody else I know who's eaten amaranth flour is also in agreement, whether or not they've ever eaten the greens (amaranth seeds or flour are bitter and an acquired taste).

True wild rice is already basically as domesticated as it needs to be and all you (yes, you) need to harvest it is a canoe and a stick. Although indigenous to the Great Lakes regions, it has been successfully introduced (with no obvious environmental hazards) as far west as Idaho.

In many environments, starchy tubers like wapato or camas lily (I'm spacing out on others outside of the northwest) are more useful than grains anyway, because you can just leave them in the ground or muck until you need them, instead of having to harvest all at once and find a safe way to store them.

I spend too much time thinking about this. Somebody smarter, please come along and correct my flights of fancy, please?
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 4:49 PM on October 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Does anyone know of similar projects taking place right now?

I remember reading that groundnuts (Apios americana, taste and texture similar to a small potato) were being domesticated at the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station in the mid-eighties. They bred them to be much larger and less labor intensive to grow, with some success.

(My googling is turning up Domestication of Apios americana, but I don't have access to the paper itself to know if it's the project I'm thinking of.)
posted by ragtag at 4:54 PM on October 26, 2017


Ah, that reminds me: I forgot to mention Cultivariable.

While he isn't domesticating anything outright, Bill at Cultivariable is trying to develop a few, obscure Andean tubers and other root vegetables into more easily cultivated varieties. He is also currently running a project to coax Ulluco back into in a breedable form, as thousands of years of clonal reproduction has atrophied its sexual organs almost entirely. It's quite impressive and I strongly recommend you check his stuff out!
posted by constantinescharity at 5:30 PM on October 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Did you ever see the movie Toys? Those surreal scenes of rolling hills of wheat with a building or maybe an elephant blowing bubbles... those were filmed in the eastern Washington state area known as the Palouse. It's the remnants of the scrubbed land after the Missoula Ice Dam burst. Anyway, it's this odd rolling prairie ground that is farmed all across its hill grades (midwest farmers would blanch at what E WA farmers are willing to plow and harvest).

So the scenes in the movie, they're filmed in fields planted with wheat.

They don't plant that wheat anymore. They've developed a strain of winter wheat that grows most of the year and it grows to maybe a foot high before developing toward a harvestable crop and they can grow, like, 5 crops or something of it a year if it's a warm year and those scenes from Toys would look ridiculous now because the wheat in those scenes is 3-4' high.

Anyway, wheat has changed a lot in the past while. It's more efficient than it used to be, and I don't think it's GMO, I think it's naturally bred.
posted by hippybear at 9:07 PM on October 26, 2017

On a phone right now so don't have my ref file but recall that gluten has risen about 30% (and still increasing) since 1900 to satisfy mass-produced bread making. The Land Institute trys to do no harm so I'm sure they'd try to keep gluten low, but in our economy there may be insufficient demand for low-gluten wheat.
posted by unearthed at 2:03 AM on October 27, 2017

Anyway, it's this odd rolling prairie ground that is farmed all across its hill grades (midwest farmers would blanch at what E WA farmers are willing to plow and harvest).

The machinery innovations that make that side slope work possible (like combines that tilt for working on steep slopes) are impressive in their own right and probably worth an FPP or two. But if you ever have a chance, it is interesting to look at historic aerial photographs of the area -- back in the day, people farmed every square inch of the land, because per-acre productivity was so low. Happily, a lot of that marginal land is back out of production, quite a bit of it in programs like CRP and CREP (programs that pay farmers to keep land out of production and planted with native grasses, shrubs, and trees).

I am all for crop innovation and lower impact agriculture, but there is always a question of unexpected outcomes. With this, I wonder if having a low-effort but also low-yield crop could lead to marginal/fallow land being put back in production, rather than the conversion of high-yield crops (like wheat) to the new crop.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:16 AM on October 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

> Did you ever see the movie Toys?

Neat! I remember wondering about that landscape.
posted by lucidium at 12:15 PM on October 27, 2017

Dip Flash: I'd welcome some links to then/now aerial photographs of the Palouse. I don't even know where to begin to look for that kind of thing.
posted by hippybear at 10:14 PM on October 30, 2017

I am not saying that to challenge you -- I'd welcome it. Anyone who knows me in this area knows I love learning about its history and stuff. Want to go on an entirely annoying walking historical tour of downtown Spokane? Take me to lunch and end up with a parking spot 6 blocks from the restaurant. You'll be begging me to stop before we've even gotten to the restaurant door!
posted by hippybear at 10:16 PM on October 30, 2017

I’m traveling but will look for links when I am back. But your local FSA office (likely in a USDA service center) and your local archives (likely at a college/university) almost certainly have historical aerials from early versions of the NAIP program or whatever was done locally. Out here they mostly start in the late 1930’s, but in other areas may start earlier. Your local USACE office also has old aerials but may not make it easy to see them, it depends on their policies.

One of the neat things about the FSA/NRCS aerials is that they often have hand written notes from back in the day about what was done on that land, which is one of those tiny but irreplaceable windows into the past that you don’t always get to see.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:35 PM on October 30, 2017

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