Perennial Grains Start Appearing on Grocery Store Shelves

Kernza, a perennial alternative to wheat, has a lot of potential.

Cascadian Farm cereal

Sami Grover

“Daddy, you never eat cereal,” said my youngest the other day, surprised to see me stepping away from my usual breakfast fare.

“My love, this isn’t just any old cereal,” I responded, mysteriously. 

Let me explain: Sometime around 2008, I saw Wes Jackson, co-founder of The Land Institute, give a keynote presentation at a sustainable agriculture conference in South Carolina. The topic of that presentation was perennial grains. And Jackson zeroed in on one particular grain—Kernza—which the Land Institute was developing as a perennial alternative to wheat.

The potential, he argued, was amazing: 

  • It could prevent soil erosion
  • It could reduce the need for agricultural chemicals
  • It could reduce the need for fossil fuel-intensive tilling and replanting
  • It could sequester vast amounts of carbon

Jackson also wowed us with what appears to be somewhat of a Land Institute party trick—displaying a real-size comparison between the root system of annual wheat, and that of Kernza, side-by-side. Here’s what that looks like on Twitter: 

It’s not hard to see how full commercialization would result in significantly more carbon going straight underground. Yet despite all that promise, Jackson tempered his talk at the time with a sobering reality: Kernza was at least several decades away from commercial deployment. 

Fast forward just over a decade, however, and things appear to be changing. Katherine has already written about how Patagonia Provisions is now making beer from Kernza, and the list of commercial collaborations on the Kernza website (yes, it has its own website) includes bakeries and cafes, restauranteurs, breweries, and at least one company selling flour, waffle mix and raw grains direct to the consumer. Now it also includes Cascadian Farms breakfast cereals. 

And that’s how I came to be munching on a limited edition “Climate Smart Kernza Grain” cereal from the company, picked up at my local Whole Foods and developed as part of a collaboration between the Land Institute and Cascadian Farms’ parent company General Mills. As always, we need to be careful about consumer-driven efforts to ‘vote with our dollars’ and save the world, one purchase at a time. I tend to believe, however, that this type of early-stage corporate collaboration is a little different. Here’s how Cascadian Farms described the significance in a press 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. This partnership with General Mills and investment by Cascadian Farm, promises to be a significant boost, helping take this planet-friendly grain to the next level of viability as a food ingredient. Additionally we anticipate it will allow researchers to more precisely measure the impact of widespread Kernza® perennial grain cultivation on carbon sequestration.”

And let’s be clear: When I say "early stage," I do mean that this is still in a very early stage. There are currently only something like 3,500 acres of Kernza in cultivation anywhere. Yet that’s exactly when relatively small investments can make all the difference in persuading farmers to try something different. This support from brands looking to boost their “regenerative agriculture” credentials is especially valuable right now, given that there’s still a long way to go before Kernza can compete acre-for-acre with conventional wheat. (According to Tamar Haspel of The Washington Post, per-acre yields are currently about one-quarter of that from wheat.) 

Whether or not Kernza will ever achieve yields comparable to wheat remains to be seen. And whether it can scale up fast enough to put a significant dent in carbon sequestration is a question that nobody can answer just yet. What I find encouraging about this story, however, is examples of companies making very specific, strategic investments that provide ‘air cover’ for innovation to continue. Whether that’s Simple Mills funding regenerative agriculture projects, Lotus Foods promoting climate- and water-smart rice cultivation, or businesses not just claiming soil carbon sequestration—but actually measuring it—I’m pleased to see a more thoughtful example of what the role of business might be in developing solutions. 

As for how that cereal tasted? Well, it tasted like a wheat-based breakfast cereal. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point…