Press Release Courtesy of FFAR
WASHINGTON (December 2, 2020) – In the face of accelerating climate change, farmers and scientists are looking for sustainable crops that can reduce soil erosion, enhance water and environmental quality and boost farmer profitability. One option is focusing on perennial crops that regrow every year without being replanted. Yet, current grains crops, such as wheat and barley, are annual plants, meaning they require yearly planting which disturbs soil and has higher labor costs. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $992,419 Seeding Solutions grant to the University of Minnesota to accelerate the development of intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza by The Land Institute, which is a perennial plant, meaning it requires only one planting. Not only do perennial crops like Kernza reduce labor and input costs, their deep roots reduce soil erosion and trap more carbon, benefitting the environment. The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, with funding from Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy funds via the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; the Malone Family Land Preservation Foundation, via the Perennial Agriculture Project; and The Land Institute provided matching funds for a total $1,985,206 investment.
FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey notes that, “A large scale, cost-effective perennial crop would be a boon to growers and the environment. This grant is funding research that is a huge leap forward in the technology and timeframe for developing sustainable and affordable next-generation grain crops.”
Kernza is a nutritious grain commercially used in some small niche-market health foods and products such as bread, cookies and beer. However, the crop has downsides that prevent widespread adoption. Kernza is expensive, costing buyers 10 to 20 times more than wheat because its yields are currently less than half of a typical wheat crop. Like other perennials, Kernza’s annual yield decreases over time. While current breeding techniques have increased Kernza’s viability as a potentially profitable crop, it would take researchers another 20 years to match wheat yields using these methods. To be a wide-scale, sustainable crop, scientists must breed a crop variety with increased and consistent yields from year to year on a faster timeline.
University of Minnesota researchers, led by Dr. James Anderson, are developing techniques to speed breed high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of Kernza. Researchers are evaluating varieties of Kernza based on seed size and number as well as plant structures, which increase yield. The team is also developing new genetic fingerprinting technology to facilitate genomic selection that allows researchers to screen Kernza for traits while the plant is still a seedling. The tool enables predictive selection of seedling plants for further breeding, unlike traditional techniques that select from fully grown plants, requiring years of evaluation.
“This project represents a collaboration of all three US breeding programs working to improve Kernza, the University of Minnesota, The Land Institute and USDA-ARS in Logan, Utah, in addition to scientists at Kansas State University to share germplasm, genomics resources and knowledge to accelerate genetic gains and bring improved varieties to market faster,” says Dr. Anderson.
In addition to investigating breeding methods for high yields and disease resistance, the researchers are also identifying Kernza varieties that can grow in diverse environments, ensuring Kernza can be a global crop. As an added benefit, the fingerprinting technology developed for the study will be free of intellectual property rights, allowing low-cost genetic mapping of other grains. The results of this research provide a path for Kernza and other perennials to become resilient, inexpensive crops for farmers that can meet the needs of growing populations.
About the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research
The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement USDA’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.