A recipe for fighting climate change and feeding the world
Scientists hope a new kind of perennial grain, Kernza, offers a taste of what environmentally-friendly farming could look like.
“It’s so different from anything I’ve baked with,” says my baking partner, Jenny Starrs.
We’re standing in the tiny kitchen of my D.C. apartment, examining palmfuls of a dark, coarse, rich-scented flour. It’s unfamiliar because it was milled from Kernza, a grain that is fundamentally unlike all other wheat humans grow.
Most commercial crops are annual. They provide only one harvest and must be replanted every year. Growing these foods on an industrial scale usually takes huge amounts of water, fertilizer and energy, making agriculture a major source of carbon and other pollutants. Scientists say this style of farming has imperiled Earth’s soils, destroyed vital habitats and contributed to the dangerous warming of our world.
But Kernza — a domesticated form of wheatgrass developed by scientists at the nonprofit Land Institute — is perennial. A single seed will grow into a plant that provides grain year after year after year. It forms deep roots that store carbon in the soil and prevent erosion. It can be planted alongside other crops to reduce the need for fertilizer and provide habitat for wildlife. In short, proponents say, it can mimic the way a natural ecosystem works — potentially transforming farming from a cause of environmental degradation into a solution to the planet’s biggest crises.
This summer I traveled to Kansas, where I met the scientists who are trying to make Kernza as hardy and fertile as traditional wheat. I visited the farmers who must figure out how to grow it effectively. And I invited my friend Jenny, the founder of artisan baking company Starrs Sourdough, to help me make a loaf of Kernza bread.
Kernza has a long road from the laboratory to the kitchen table. It will be even harder to transform the farming practices that humans have relied on for most of history. But if the scientists, farmers and processors are successful, perennial foods might one day be available on grocery store shelves — and the bread that Jenny and I are baking could offer a taste of what’s to come.
The first step in Jenny’s bread recipe is making the “levain” — a mix of flour, water and yeast that ferments for a long time, producing lots of air bubbles and tasty lactic acid.
While the microbes chow down, Jenny and I compare the whole Kernza to some wheat kernels she has on hand. The Kernza grains are smaller, and they contain less of the gluten protein that makes traditional wheat good for baking bread.
“Obviously, bread flour is awesome,” Jenny says — after all, humans have been perfecting it for nearly 10,000 years.
At the end of the last ice age, in the fertile river valleys of the Middle East, China and Mexico, people found they could sustain themselves more easily by cultivating crops. Three annual grasses — wheat, rice and corn — became the foundation of human diets and human civilization.
Freed from the need to rove the landscape in search of food, people settled down and constructed cities. Religions and school calendars were structured around the rhythms of farming: planting seeds, helping them grow, harvesting grains and then tilling the soil to prepare it for the next round of planting. Generations of careful breeding improved crops’ taste and yield, and ever- stronger fertilizers have made farms still more productive. The population boomed.
But the planet has paid the price. The practice of tillage — churning the ground to destroy weeds and facilitate the planting of next year’s crop — has depleted the very earth from which our food is grown. It breaks up clumps of organic matter and exposes them to the sunlight, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Tilled soil is less able to hold water, causing nutrients and other particles to run off into rivers, lakes and the sea.
Research suggests that the world’s soils are now eroding 100 times faster than new soil can form, and an estimated 33 percent of soil is so degraded that its ability to grow crops is compromised. Meanwhile, monoculture — the strategy of sowing huge fields with a single crop — achieves higher yields but also puts more pressure on soil and increases the risk that plants will succumb to pests or disease.