Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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The Grain That Tastes Like Wheat, but Grows Like a Prairie Grass

Publication: The Nation

Author: Madeline Ostrander

For 12,000 years, human agriculture has cultivated grains that are replanted every year, at enormous environmental cost. Kernza represents a new way forward.


In 1977, Wes Jackson, co-founder of an agricultural-research organization called the Land Institute, was strolling through the Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeast Kansas—several thousand acres of grassland that look much like the Great Plains did before they were plowed up for agriculture. Jackson had just read a report from the US comptroller general showing that more than five tons of topsoil per acre were eroding from the average grain farm annually. And he wondered: Why couldn’t a farm look more like this prairie?

[B]reeding experiments proceeded on a small scale until 2001, when Lee DeHaan joined the Land Institute’s staff. In 2003, he launched a large-scale program at the Land Institute to convert T. intermedium into a functioning grain crop called Kernza, a play on the name Konza.

For years, a segment of the food movement has clung to a nostalgic view—back to the land, back to heirloom varieties—while some sustainable-food advocates have distanced themselves from the conventional grain farming that ranges across the Great Plains and the Midwest. But in a time of climate change, it’s possible that farming needs a different kind of makeover, bearing in mind the realities of Big Agriculture and the humble grains that power most of the farming sector.

Several millennia ago, wheat changed the course of civilization. Perhaps it’s time for another rewrite.

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