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What is Kernza? General Mills thinks it'll make a good grain – and help soil

Why Kernza could be a valuable, eco-friendly grain in the future.

It's sweet and has a nutty taste, making it a good match for cereal or snacks.

And the way it grows could mean more benefits for soil and the environment than regular wheat provides.

Get ready for more Kernza.

Kernza is the trademarked brand name for a type of intermediate wheatgrass that environmentally conscious food producers have high hopes for. Which is why General Mills announced a $500,000 donation to the University of Minnesota's Forever Green Initiative.

Working in partnership with the Kansas-based Land Institute, the program is trying to make Kernza – which is a wild relative of wheat – a viable commercial product.

As part of the effort, Cascadian Farm (which became part of General Mills in 2000 as the company's first organic brand) has agreed to buy some Kernza off-the-bat as a way to get farmers growing commercial-size fields of the grain.

A Cascadian Farm exec said in the announcement they're "excited to incorporate [Kernza] ... into our foods and our organic farming."

The benefits

Hopeful environmentally-conscious groups have been heralding Kernza as a possible breakthrough for a few years – General Mills, the Land Institute, and the U of M's College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resource Sciences have been looking at it since 2014.

And NPR reported the grain, which is thought to have come from Asia originally, has been used in the U.S. for livestock. Humans just haven't eaten it.

But there's a vision to get there.

"Is Kernza the magical grain that will save us all?" Huffington Post asked when Patagonia unveiled a new beer that used Kernza grown in Minnesota. Civil Eats said the grain "could save our soil and feed us well."

Why is it so highly-regarded?

One, it's a perennial – it keeps coming back every year without having to be replanted. That means there's less soil disruption. And as the Washington Post explains, because Kernza keeps growing, it continues absorbing carbon – keeping it in the ground, and out of the atmosphere.

Kernza also has long roots, which can go 10 feet into the ground and are more dense than traditional wheat plants.

General Mills says early research points to Kernza as a plant that can help preserve soil while also helping its health, reducing the nitrogen that can move into nearby ground and surface waters.

“Research has demonstrated that the ecological benefits of Kernza perennial grain for agricultural systems are remarkable,” said Dr. Lee DeHaan, lead scientist at The Land Institute, in the news release. “The length, size, and long life of the roots enable the grain to provide measurable soil health benefits and drought resistance while preventing soil erosion and storing critical nutrients – potentially turning agriculture into a soil-forming ecosystem.

But it's still a work in progress

Not that it's a silver bullet.

The Washington Post story, which is from October 2016, said Kernza's seeds are very small, much smaller than wheat, so researchers are working on growing them. There also isn't much gluten in Kernza, so it's bad for making bread.

Cascadian Farm also has to work with the Land Institute to get farmers to plant Kernza on commercial-scale fields, rather than the test-sized plots that are currently being used.

And the farm will plant an acre of its own test plot in Washington, which it will monitor along with the Land Institute to see how it handles growing in that ecosystem.

You can read more about the Land Institute's work with Kernza here.

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