Wheat of the Future

April 7, 2015

A taste of kernza: nutty and complex. The biscotti on the bottom is 100 percent kernza, the one above is 50 percent kernza, the muffin is one quarter kernza. 

What if the ancient art of annual crop cultivation – perhaps the oldest art there is – has stopped serving us? 

The plant engineers at Salina Kansas' Land Institute think it might have. 

When wheat was cultivated into an annual crop it probably ushered in civilization as we know it. But 9,500 years later – give or take – we've got a problem: America's plains are blowing away as pesticide-laced eroded soil washes into our rivers. And for what? An increasingly problematic product: according to the Land Institute, modern commercial wheat contains a fraction of the nutrients found in the wheat we ate only two generations ago. 

Their solution? Develop a perennial wheat with long roots going deep into the soil.

But domesticating wild plants is tough business, and the Institute's Lee Deehan was prepared to spend a long time developing kernza (their perennial wheat plant).  He thought it might take up to a hundred years to produce a satisfying specimen. But swift DNA sequencing changed that, and Deehan and his team think they're only a few years away from a commercial product.  At the moment they're tackling the problem of yield per acre (around a third of the industrial wheat), and seed size (too small).

All impressive, but how does kernza taste? Nuttier and more complex than most whole-wheats I’ve tried. Its low gluten content means it won't work as a replacement for all-purpose flour, but it makes a wonderful addition to breads and pastries.

At the moment you won't find kernza on your grocery shelf, but it’s slowly inching into the market. Patagonia food will use it in their new health food line, a few restaurants offer kernza bread, and someone is even making booze from it. 

It is definitely in your future.


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