Fad or Future

Is new grain kernza about to become a sustainability superstar?

It’s a drought-resistant, long-lasting crop that has been developed in the US, with one of America’s biggest manufacturers backing it for commercialisation.

17 September 2018

There’s been the likes of sorghum and fonio. Why should I go crazy for kernza?

Well, it’s got some good environment credentials and ethical considerations are something consumers are increasingly interested in. The grain was developed in America by The Land Institute in Kansas because of its sustainability stats.

It’s a crop that doesn’t need to be replanted annually as it lives for several years. In comparison, wheat has to be grown from new seeds every year. The roots of a kernza plant grow 10 feet into the soil, much deeper than annual wheat, allowing the plant to store nutrients, resist drought and reduce soil erosion. It also requires less fertilisers and pesticides.

Plus, ploughing-intensive agriculture required to grow most major crops like corn or soybeans means more carbon in the soil is released into the atmosphere, becoming greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Grains like kernza don't need ploughing, which keeps carbon trapped in the ground – a handy weapon in the battle against climate change.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. Current yields are much lower than conventional wheat and the grain is tiny, making farming it complicated.

OK, but what about eating this climate crusader?

It has a sweet, nutty flavour and is said to be a good fit for cereals and snacks. It has a higher protein and fibre content than wheat and also has fewer carbohydrates.

It can be blended with wheat flour to make bread, turned into muffins and pancakes, and served as a pilaf.

Brewers have led the way with using the grain in the US: Patagonia Provisions has released a Long Root Ale and Bang Brewing produces a blonde ale called Gold.

Restaurants and chefs are also getting in on the act. 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, while Birchwood Café in Minneapolis also has dishes with the grain. Noodle aficionado Dumpling & Strand produces kernza pasta that they retail through farmers’ markets.

If only I could eat my way around America. What about finding it in the supermarket?

In a huge boon for the grain, US multinational manufacturer General Mills has partnered with The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota to help commercialise kernza.

Under its organic brand Cascadian Farm, it is incorporating the ingredient into foods, which should be available in retail markets by late 2019. The company has agreed to purchase an initial amount of the grain, which has allowed The Land Institute to arrange with farmers to plant on commercial-scale fields versus the test-sized plots currently being grown.

So when could we see this eco-warrior hit UK shores?

The Land Institute is working to develop varieties of kernza that are economical for farmers to grow on a large scale, with the breeding program focused on bringing out a number of traits including yield, disease resistance, seed size and grain quality. The organisation expects the first kernza variety will be widely available by 2019.

Long-term goals include developing a variety with yield similar to annual wheat, improving bread baking quality and getting the grain widely grown throughout the northern United States and in several other countries around the world.

Does Sparkie see golden success for this grain?


Sparkie says:

The grains market is heavily influenced by media attention, but even with that, it has to be a combination of factors for a product to do well. Taking teff as an example, it had so much media presence, but when it hit retail, the price was exorbitant, pushing it beyond the purchasing power of most consumers. From the description, this seems like a product to help feed the developing world rather than us.

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