Kernza. Ask your computer for info on perennial wheat, and “kernza” will pop up. Since introduced to the media in 2010, it has been lauded as the answer to a hungry and warming planet. A wheat crop that can be harvested year after year without replanting, thus saving energy and CO2 emissions. But it’s not really a wheat: It’s a cross between durum wheat and intermediate wheatgrass, registered in 2011 as a new crop by the nonprofit Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas.
Kernza has only a few genes from wheat in it, which enlarge the seed, but the seeds are still small compared to wheat. The Land Institute breeder actually refers to it as an intermediate wheatgrass variety. The seed has a hull that must be removed before milling into flour. The flour makes good bread but is very expensive. Seed yields are only a third to a half that of wheat, and flour yields are low because of the hull.
Even so, many companies are waiting for enough production to make a branded product. General Mills, for instance, wants to make a new cereal out of it. Eventually, I suppose, “Made with Kernza perennial wheat” will become another sell phrase like “No gluten,” “Local,” “No sugar added,” non-GMO, etc. Currently about 6,000 acres are grown in the U.S., compared with 45 million wheat acres.
Crossing wheatgrasses with wheat has a long history. The first crosses were made nearly 100 years ago in the Soviet Union. China has had a vigorous breeding program since the 1950s. Australia also has had a program for many years and expects to release a variety to growers by 2030.
Over the last 60 years or so, wheatgrasses have furnished many genes to breeders that enhance disease and pest control. They are also important genetic resources for tolerance to drought, salinity, and high temperature stresses. But transferring the perennial habit is difficult because many genes are involved, and which ones they are is not known. Genes for disease and pest resistance are mostly known and can be tracked through DNA analysis of crosses.
Besides the Land Institute in Kansas and the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, several land grant colleges have perennial wheat programs. Michigan State has a variety testing program. Montana State released a cultivar in 1987 called MT-2.
Wheat breeder Dr. Steve Jones’ team at Washington State University in Mount Vernon has been working on a perennial wheat for some 20 years. They have a cultivar ready for release, named Salish Blue, and several hundred perennial varieties in the pipeline. Salish Blue is a soft wheat with a blue-grey kernel, and yields about 70 percent of common white wheat. It is a cross with tall wheatgrass, and adds a genome from tall wheatgrass to wheat’s three genomes. That adds 14 chromosomes from tall wheatgrass to wheat’s 42, for a total of 56 chromosomes. Because of this significant change in the DNA, Jones has proposed a new genus and species for the combination. He proposes the combination of Triticum aestivum (bread wheat) with Thinopyrum ponticum (tall wheatgrass) to be named Tritpyrum aaseae.
So, in conclusion, why the fuss to produce a perennial wheat? First of all, it doesn’t have to be seeded every year, saving seed and planting costs. Second, perennial cultivars have deep, fibrous roots that mine deep nutrients, and protect against erosion and drought. The roots are a carbon sink to help ameliorate global warming. Perennial wheat will still need fertilizer and pesticides to control weeds, diseases, and insects. And yields will have to be increased to be acceptable to most farmers. Salish Blue will no doubt find a place in niche markets.
Grazing fall and winter growth will probably be an option with early fall rains or irrigation, without hurting seed production.
Environmentalists are cheering for perennial wheat. But you know what? It’s one of those despicable grain monocultures!
Jack DeWitt is a farmer-agronomist with farming experience that spans the decades since the end of horse farming to the age of GPS and precision farming. He recounts all and predicts how we can have a future world with abundant food in his book “World Food Unlimited.” A version of this article was republished from Agri-Times Northwest with permission.