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Kernz You Believe It? Sustainable Agriculture and The Future of Perennial Crops

As climate change progresses, as illustrated by the numerous wildfires burning in our country right now, consumers are pushing for more sustainable food sources and asking for transparency from the companies they purchase from. While this is a great start, I think it’s important that we understand just what sustainable agriculture means and how we can play a role in pushing our food system in that direction.


The foundation of sustainable agriculture is that we utilize the earth’s natural resources wisely. Now this is not an extensive, cumulative list, but built on this premise environmental sustainability can look like:

  • Enhancing and maintaining healthy soil

  • Utilizing biological cycles and working with nature, rather than against it

  • Minimizing nonrenewable resource usage and pollution

  • Promoting integrated, biodiverse farms

In application these practices include using no-till or low-till farming methods, intercropping, integrating crops and livestock, utilizing cover crops to protect and replenish soil nutrients, and planting perennial crops. While all of these will play a role in pushing us towards more sustainable food systems, I want to dive a bit deeper into perennial crops.


Unlike annual crops, perennial varieties live year after year, eliminating the need for replanting. This alone can save farmers both time and money, but beyond just the reduction of farm resources these crops have a positive impact on soil and water use. Because these crops stay in the ground year round, they develop complex root systems upwards of 8-10 feet deep, a system much more impressive than their annual counterparts with roots closer to 2-5 feet deep. These long roots allow the plant to utilize more of the soil’s water reserves and rainwater, an added benefit if you’re in an area prone to droughts, and they help to reinforce the soil, reducing erosion and loss of nutrients. Since there is less nutrient loss, less fertilizer is needed to replace those nutrients. Additionally, perennial crops grow larger than annuals and produce more ground cover, blocking sun and space from surrounding weeds, therefore reducing the need for herbicides.


All of this sounds great, right? Well here’s the thing: while there are many perennial crops already on the market--rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, kale, artichokes, berries, lemons, limes, figs, and more--two of the biggest cash crops in the United States, wheat and soy, are not being grown as perennials. In fact, almost all grains, legumes and oil crops are grown as annuals, adding up to a whopping 75% in the United States and 69% globally. You may be wondering why this is a big deal, but in the United States this year alone, there were 44.3 million acres of wheat and 83.8 million acres of soybeans planted. To put it into perspective, that’s roughly the equivalent of all of Wisconsin covered in wheat and all of Montana covered in soybeans.


Enter The Land Institute.


The Land Institute is a science-based research organization in Salina, KS, working to develop an alternative to our current farming practices (you know, the ones that are destroying Earth’s natural ecosystem). One of their two goals? Development and advancement of perennial crops. When it comes down to it, perennial crops can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation, and that alone is enough reason to pay attention to what they’re doing. The Land Institute is working on both domestication of wild perennials and perennialization of existing annual crops. While they are still researching options for a perennial legume, they’ve made progress on a perennial oilseed (Siphium), and their perennial grain, Kernza, is nearing commercialization.


Kernza is a cousin of annual wheat and as of this year there are 2000 acres of it growing globally. The Land Institute is still working on the genome in order to increase the yield size and get it closer to that of annual wheat, but Kernza has already made it into a few products. From Kernza crackers (https://www.columbiacountybread.com/products/sprouted-organic-kernza-flatbread-crackers-5-pack) to Kernza Karmalita bars from Birchwood Cafe here in the Twin Cities (if you know, you know) you can find Kernza near you. If you want to take it upon yourself and experiment with the grain, you can get both whole grain and flour from The Perennial Pantry (https://perennial-pantry.com/products/kernza-perennial-grain-launch-campaign/). This is exactly what I did, and I whipped up some delicious Spiced Kernza Pancakes which you can check out down below. In my opinion, it tastes pretty close to whole grain wheat but has less of that whole grain texture. AND it’s good for the planet. That’s a win in my book.


Lastly, I do think it’s important to highlight here that the perennial crops The Land Institute is working on are genetically engineered, meaning they’re GMOs. This is a great testament to the fact that GMOs are not “bad”, they don’t need to be feared, and in fact they CAN help us improve agricultural sustainability AND feed the world.


Have you ever heard of perennial crops before? Let me know what you think down below!


Until next time,

Kristin


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