In these rather dismal days it was nice to see an article in The Washington Post that inspires a bit of optimism about human ingenuity and the future. The article, which actually ran a couple of months ago (Judy sent me a link, which I lost and then found again) is about the development of perennial grain crops.
Specifically, a perennial wheat dubbed Kernza, developed by a scientific organization called The Land Institute.
While still a distant prospect, a conversion of agriculture from annual to perennial grains could yield vast environmental benefits. The deep roots of perennial grasses (Kernza’s are up to 10′ deep), combined with reduced tilling, would minimize soil runoff and improve water quality. Those roots might also store vast amounts of carbon, providing some mitigation for climate change.
Kernza was developed from a type of wheatgrass, something like the wild wheat our ancestors picked many thousands of years ago. The seeds are getting bigger, but a grain of Kernza is still one fourth the size of conventional wheat. Also, Kernza is very low in gluten, so a challenge for bread making.
While Kernza has a long way to go, there is progress. The food giant General Mills is evaluating the plant. Entrepreneurs are mixing Kernza with conventional wheat to make noodles, crackers, and bread. Plus, it’s being brewed into a beer called Long Root Ale, now being sold in supermarkets throughout the West Coast.
The Land Institute is also working on perennial rice (being tested in China) and sorghum. They are working with the Missouri Botanic Garden to identify new wild perennial plants that could be domesticated for agriculture.
Personally, I may be most excited by their work on the prairie native Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) to yield a food oil that could compete with annual sunflowers. Imagine farmers cultivating thousands of acres of blooming Silphium!
Perhaps positive ingenuity really will outweigh the willful ignorance and hatefulness so evident in the current political moment. It’s a nice thought.