Originally published by MSN News
by Sarah Kaplan
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