A Tiny New Grain Could Help Fight Climate Change

A man stands amidst an empty field with felled trees. Credit: Dave Herring/Unsplash

A man stands amidst an empty field with felled trees. Credit: Dave Herring/Unsplash

There’s a radical campaign to reinvent agriculture and save the planet. And the hero of this tale? A tiny plant called “kernza.” Kernza’s story begins a little more than 40 years ago, with a scientist named Wes Jackson. Jackson was alarmed by the relationship between our current agricultural practices and climate change, so he turned to the little wheatgrass as his weapon of choice in the war against warming.

Alarming agriculture

Our farms emit roughly 6 billion tons of greenhouse gasses each year. That adds up to about 13% of our total emissions, making the agricultural sector the world’s second-largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Although the energy sector, which includes emissions from both power generation and transport, still comes in first, we could dramatically reduce the effects of climate change by adopting new soil management practices.

The primary problem with our current farming methods is that our diets rely on annual crops like wheat and rice. These need to be replanted each year, which means that farmers have to till the soil and clear away any existing vegetation, lest it choke the tiny seedlings they are planting.

There are two problems with this annual tillage. First, the herbicides and tools that farmers use to clear the land don’t just kill unwanted plants, they invariably wipe out all of the insects, nesting birds, and tiny mammals that took up residence in the area. But even more alarmingly, as recent research from Michigan State University reveals, churning the soil releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

Although the exact amount of carbon released will vary year-to-year, over an extended period of use, scientists estimate that tilling releases some 30% of the carbon that’s stored in soil.

A better way to farm

Jackson believed the answer to this problem was perennial wheat plants, which are plants that live longer than two years. These plants act like “carbon pumps,” as they increase the amount of the carbon that’s taken out of the air by pumping it into the soil, where it is stored. And 40 years ago, Jackson founded The Land Institute to bring perennial wheat farming to life.

For the last 15 years, his team has been working with kernza, which is a plant that remains productive for years after it’s planted. The main goal is to try and make the plant produce larger seeds and larger harvests, which will allow kernza to rival our traditional wheat staples that need to be replanted each year.

Each year, the team selects the best offspring and cross-pollinates them to make the plants bigger. Although they have some ways to go before kernza can rival other wheat varieties, already, the seeds are twice as large as when they first started. And according to the company, in addition to reducing tillage, early research shows that kernza’s long roots can also help maintain soil health and limit nitrogen leaching into ground and surface water.

All of these features taken together could be attractive to shoppers who value environmental sustainability in the products that they buy.

What’s more? General Mills, the company that makes Cheerios and Cocoa Puffs, says they want to use it to make cereal. In fact, they have already used it in limited supply runs. Similarly, Patagonia is using the grain as a key ingredient in its beer, and Cascadian Farm also announced a limited-edition cereal made with it.

As was previously noted, the tiny grain still has some way to go. Kernza currently only produces 500 pounds of harvest per acre while the average U.S. wheat field produces some 4,000 pounds of harvest per acre. But thanks to the attention given by the aforementioned companies, interest is increasing. And once it’s ready, you could help fight climate change just by choosing your morning breakfast or selecting your beer of choice.