Future Food : New Tiny Grain ‘Kernza’

Kernza is a new type of grain that grows differently than traditional wheat, This new food we are all likely to hear a lot more about in the future. Developed from wheat grass, ‘Kernza’ is being hailed as a weapon against climate change that could also protect the environment and revolutionize farming. Big claims for a grain that is but one-fifth the size of wheat.

Kernza is not a strain or species of wheat, but a registered trade name owned by The Land Institute for a type of intermediate wheat grass, a wild relative of annual wheat.

What Kernza makes different from wheat ?

Wheat, is an annual crop that farmers typically plant in the fall. It is harvested in the summer when the grain is ripe and the plants die. Each year, new seed is planted.

Kernza is a perennial that lives for several years. The seed is planted and farmers harvest the grain, but the plant continues to live in the soil and produce a crop every year. That removes the need to clear fields, plough and reseed every year, saving energy and reducing farmers carbon emissions, describes it as being like a pump that takes carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in the soil. It also traps nitrogen, preventing it from reaching streams and rivers. Kernza can also be harvested using existing farm machinery.

Why is it important? Researchers developed sustainable growth of Kernza to capture the environmental benefits of perennials. The roots of a Kernza plant grow 10 feet into the soil, much deeper than annual wheat. Those deeper roots allow the plant to store nutrients, resist drought and reduce soil erosion. Kernza can both protect the soil while producing food for people to eat.

How does it taste? The grain has a sweet, nutty flavor making it a good fit for cereals and snacks. The kernel is smaller than wheat and has more bran and fiber, but fewer carbohydrates.People who have tried Kernza say it tastes good. But the grain has a much more serious purpose. Unlike wheat, barley and other cereals it is a perennial plant whose roots can be left in the ground to regrow after harvesting.

When will it be available? General Mills announced that it will be using Kernza in some of its Cascadia Farms organic brand cereals and snacks. Last month, US food giant General Mills launched a breakfast cereal made from it. General Mills has also given the plant-breeding team behind Kernza half a million dollars to bring it to full commercial production.

The Land Institute has been conducting research on perennial grains since the 1980s and continues to work with the goal of developing varieties of Kernza that are economical for farmers to grow on a large scale. They expect the first Kernza variety will be widely available by 2019.

Where can you buy it? Kernza is available in a few specialty products now. Patagonia Provisions produces a beer called Long Root Ale which is sold on the West Coast. Chefs in the Minneapolis area, where Kernza is grown in test plots, have made pasta, tortillas and muffins. The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco serves Kernza bread and crackers.Americans can already buy pasta, pizza, bread and beer made with the grain, which was trademarked ‘Kernza’ by the Land Institute in Kansas.

What is Market size ?

Grains are a big market (making up 45% of our calorie intake) and Kernza has some stiff competition. While wheat has been around for more than 10,000 years, Kernza is the new kid on the block. It was first bred under two decades ago and there are currently less than 500 hectares of the crop under cultivation.

The Land Institute believe in the potential of this grain to make a positive ecological impact.

Bigger and better varieties

In order to make Kernza more attractive to farmers and food producers, plan to create new strains of the grain, with higher yields. Currently, Kernza grains are a lot smaller than wheat, but the Kansas team believe they can create varieties with much larger seeds.Developed from what is commonly known as intermediate wheatgrass (Latin name thinopyrum intermedium), Kernza has a long time has been used in animal feed. It’s suited to cooler climates such as that found in the prairie lands in the north of the United States.

It could be another 10 years before Kernza-based products are widely available in supermarkets. But things are progressing fast. The Land Institute is working on a dwarf variety of the grain that promises improved bread-baking qualities.



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