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.
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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.
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.
The Padma Shri Awards 2019 have been conferred upon as many as ten farmers from across nine Indian states who have left their mark in agriculture, be it through progressive, innovative methods or by preserving the traditional farming practices sans the use of chemicals or mechanisation. At a time when heavy use of chemicals in agriculture is raising serious health concerns, the recognition of organic farmers across India would surely boost the much-needed change in farming practices.
Rajkumari Devi, everyone’s beloved ‘Kisan Chachi’ from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has brought the rural women from her village out of the confines of home and hearth to the forefront of farming and earning. Once a voiceless housewife, Rajkumari discovered a new window of opportunity for her struggling family when she shifted to organic farming of vegetables in the mere two and a half bighas of the family plot, originally meant for tobacco cultivation.
Soon, Rajkumari started making jams, jellies and pickles from her produce and ventured out into the local market, now as a businesswoman. She marketed her products across villages in a bicycle, which earned her the epithet ‘Bicycle Chachi’. Rajkumari roped in local women who formed Self Help Groups among themselves to participate in farming and small scale cottage businesses.
72-year-old Babulal Dahiya is a postmaster and poet-turned-paddy farmer from Pithaurabad village in Madhya Pradesh. In a two-acre plot, he has revived 110 indigenous varieties of rice in a completely organic manner.
Babulal, an adept poet and storyteller in the local Bagheli language, unearthed the names of a few unknown varieties of paddy in the tribal folklores he used to recite. This fuelled his interest to preserve these endangered varieties which were once an integral part of the traditional cuisine. Since 2005, he has been collecting paddy seeds from farmers across India and has sown them in his own land. He is also growing around 100 varieties of grains, pulses and vegetables in another 6 acres of land.
Vallabhbhai Vasrambhai Marvaniya
The 96-year-old farmer from Junagarh, Gujarat was the one to introduce carrot in the food plates of Gujarat. Before 1943, no one in Gujarat was aware that carrots are edible for humans, in fact, quite nutritious. Vallabhbhai, a school dropout teenager back then, was helping his father in their family farm when out of curiosity he tried tasting a carrot from the cattle feed. He persuaded his father to grow and sell this new vegetable, which became a common addition to the Gujarati cuisine in no time.
Vallabhbhai has developed the highly nutritious and high-yielding ‘Madhuvan Gajar’ carrot variety. Aside from practising organic farming throughout his life, the ‘Madhuvan Gajaron ke Vidhaata’ (God of Madhuvan Gajar) also started drip irrigation and mulching methods in the state.
Kanwal Singh Chauhan
This progressive farmer from Sonepat, Haryana brought prosperity to the farming families in his village Aterna by promoting the cultivation of HM-4 hybrid variety of baby corn. Presently, Aterna is the top producer of baby corn in India. Chauhan also introduced organic farming to mushroom, sweet corn and tomato in his village, benefitting over 5,000 farmers.
A tribal woman from Koraput, 69-year-old Kamala Pujhari was appointed by Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik as a member of the Odisha Planning Board in 2018. She is a noted agricultural activist, who is known to have convinced local tribal villagers to ditch chemicals and switch to organic farming practices.
Kamala first came to the limelight for preserving over a hundred traditional paddy varieties as well as endangered breeds of black cumin, sesame, turmeric, maha Kanta, phula, ghantia etc. In 2004, she was adjudged the best woman farmer by the Odisha Govt.
Jagdish Prasad Parikh
Jagdish Prasad Parikh is an unlettered farmer from Ajitgarh village in Rajasthan, whose name has entered the Limca Book of Records for growing one of the largest cauliflowers of the world – the ‘Ajitgarh variety’ which weighs 25.5 kg.
Interestingly, Parikh has earned his name and fame through his astounding agro-innovations using traditional methods, despite having no proper scientific know-how. In 2017, he received an IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) for his high-yielding and pest-resistant innovative crops.
He is the founder of Swami Vivekanand Agricultural Research Farm in Jhalawar, Rajasthan, from where organic crops are exported to Australia, Germany, France, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. In fact, students from these countries frequent Patidar’s farm to learn organic farming from him.
Patidar has been practising organic farming since 2004 in his 40 acres of land. Despite suffering initial losses, he has overcome many roadblocks to become one of the pioneers of organic farming in India.
Bharat Bhushan Tyagi
Tyagi, a science graduate from Delhi University, has been practising organic farming for over thirty years in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. He has trained over 1,00,000 farmers and their families in organic farming and has established an agricultural research and training centre in his village.
Venkateswara Rao Yadlapalli
This organic farmer from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh has harnessed modern-day technology to promote organic farming among thousands. He has recently launched mobile apps on natural and allied farming.
Besides, he is the proprietor of three popular magazines – ‘Rythunestham’, ‘Pasunestham’ and ‘Prakruthi Nestham’ – focussing on natural farming, animal husbandry and horticulture respectively. Every year, Yadlapalli also proffers felicitations and awards for organic farmers with remarkable achievements.
Ram Saran Verma
Uttar Pradesh’s ‘Hi-Tech Banana King’ Ram Saran Verma introduced tissue culture to generate tremendous produce of bananas in the wheat-dominated lands of Daulatpur. Born in a farmer family with only 4 acres of land, Verma had to sacrifice his dreams of higher studies due to financial constraints. In his youth, he travelled far and wide to learn newer agricultural methods from farmers and agro-scientists. When his proposal of banana farming was turned down by his family seniors, he started the same on his own in only 1 acre of land.
Within a few years, his name was known far and wide for the incredible profits he earned. Today, his methods have facilitated over 50,000 farmers from neighbouring villages.
In the animal husbandry sector, Sultan Singh has been awarded for his contribution to pisciculture along with Narendra Singh for dairy-breeding.
Efforts For Good salutes the amazing achievements of all these organic farming crusaders of India and congratulates them on receiving the prestigious Padma Shri awards.