Almost all grains are annuals, or plants that complete their life cycles only once before they die. Kernza, however, is a special variety of perennial wheat—developed, in part, by The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization—that comes back year after year. Lee DeHaan, lead scientist at The Land Institute, was named a 2017 American Food Hero for his work breeding a more sustainable wheat.
Perennials have several advantages over annuals. The biggest perk: Plants that live longer develop root systems that crawl deeper into the earth—we're talking 10 feet underground. When plants take in carbon dioxide, that CO2 goes down into the roots and is buried in the soil (this is called carbon sequestration). Kernza's deep, perennial root systems are able to trap—and keep—more of these harmful greenhouse gases underground and out of the atmosphere, making it an important tool for mitigating climate change.
"Consumers don't always link food and the way we grow it with greenhouse gases and climate change," says Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director for Cascadian Farm. "But 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. For us at Cascadian Farm, it was imperative that we lead in finding a solution to how food can be a better part of the system."
Photo: The Land Institute
Because Americans already know and love it! Breakfast cereal is a $9 billion industry in the U.S., according to Euromonitor International, a market research company. And, honestly, the Honey Toasted Kernza flakes taste similar to many other wheat-based cereals you'd encounter at the grocery store—toasty, nutty, slightly sweet—and that was intentional. "We didn't want to ask the consumer to make too many changes to the things that they're used to," says Comings. "You can't have a climate impact if you're trying to sell people something that they don't want to buy. That's not a realistic business proposition."
And nutritionally, it's a breakfast we can get behind. A 1-cup serving of cereal packs 6 grams of fiber and 25 grams of whole grains. And it's only 180 calories, with 8 grams of added sugar—well within reason for a breakfast cereal.
For now, you won't find the cereal in stores near you. Instead, you make a donation of at least $25 to the Deeply Rooted for Good Movement to get one of 6,000 boxes made for Cascadian Farm's special fundraising campaign. Different donation levels can get you different products, including "I'm a Part of the Plot" merchandise or your name on a plaque on one of the crop's test fields in the Skagit Valley in Washington. Funds raised go to The Land Institute to help make this grain large-scale market-ready by 2040.
In addition to Cascadian Farm, other brands have been working on bringing this wheat to market. Patagonia Provisions has partnered with Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon, to develop Long Root Pale Ale and their new addition, Long Root Wit, a Belgian-style wit beer made with this perennial grain. The beer is sold at select Whole Foods and other independent groceries in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Other companies brewing with this wheat are Bang Brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Blue Skye Brewery in Salina, Kansas.
The grain is also starting to appear in restaurants, including The Perennial in San Francisco (you'll read more about them in an upcoming issue of EatingWell Magazine), Café Gratitude in Los Angeles, and Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.
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