Can a cereal grain, smaller in size than even a wheat grain, save our planet? The actual truth is more fascinating than it sounds, as revealed by a group of researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas, USA. The crop, named ‘Kernza’ is a hybrid derived from wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) and was specifically developed by scientists to be the future of agriculture, in the times of drastic climate change. Unlike any other crop in the world, Kernza is a perennial grain which need not be resown after a harvest season, as the plant regrows over and over again with its roots reaching deep beneath the ground. This helps to reduce the soil carbon emission which happens during harvesting and resowing of seeds, reports World Economic Forum.
The history of Kernza
The story of Kernza dates back to 1983 when scientist Wes Jackson was looking to produce perennial grain crops for human consumption. At a lecture at Oregon State University, Jackson debated that the choice of seasonal crops like wheat and rice as staple was a flawed step in the history of humanity. He reasoned that planting seeds twice a year in the same soil requires the destruction of the soil’s natural vegetation. Weeding thus affects the natural nutritional balance of the soil, requiring additional chemicals to supplement it. Tilling the soil releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the nitrogen cycles are disrupted. This, in turn, leads to infertility in the soil and erosion of the upper layers.
Working as per Jackson’s vision, scientists at Rodale Institute started researching with intermediate wheatgrass, a Eurasian variety of fodder grass. The final Kernza grain was developed by selecting the best seeds from each generation of the crop over the past four decades. The result? Kernza grain is being deemed as the answer to climate change.
What makes Kernza the best
Kernza roots reach a depth of up to 3 metres in the soil which is more than twice that of wheat. They increase the soil retention capacity and preserves the natural biome of the soil. Krenza also acts as a pump which absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and preserves it in the soil as organic compounds. It also helps to trap nitrogen and prevents the leaching of harmful nitrogen compounds into water sources.
The present variety of Kernza grain is one-fifth of the size of wheat grain. The researchers at Land Institute are trying to develop high-yielding varieties of the grain, which would make it more appealing to the farmers and spread its popularity among people. Although, it might be another decade before we see Kernza hitting the market on a widespread scale.
The present and future of Kernza
At present, Kernza is being grown in a limited area of 500 hectares in the prairies of Kansas. Recently, US food corporate General Mills marketed a breakfast cereal prepared from Kernza. They are also providing funding to Land Institute for large-scale cultivation of Kernza. Another international company has brewed a new type of beer from Kernza. Many food hubs in the USA are also making pasta, bread, pizza from Kernza flour and the feedback from the consumers is quite positive.