General Mills boosts eco-friendly grain Kernza

Published 10:25 am Tuesday, March 7, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — A sweet, nutty-tasting new grain called Kernza is getting a big boost from food giant General Mills, which is intrigued by the potentially big environmental benefits of the drought-resistant crop with long roots that doesn’t need to be replanted every year.

General Mills on Tuesday announced partnerships with The Land Institute and the University of Minnesota to help commercialize Kernza, a wild relative of wheat, and to incorporate the grain into cereals and snacks under its Cascadian Farm organic brand. The company hopes to put those products on grocery store shelves early next year. It’s also urging other food companies to help create a market for Kernza.

“It’s rare that you find something like this that, if you work at it, has so many environmental benefits associated with it. So that’s one of the reasons we’re excited about this,” Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer for Golden Valley-based General Mills, told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement.

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Kernza is the trademark for the grain, which comes from the perennial intermediate wheatgrass plant. Its dense roots extend over 10 feet — twice as deep as conventional annual wheat. Unlike conventional wheat, farmers who grow it don’t need to till the soil and replant it every year.

The long roots benefit the soil by helping store nutrients and water, while preventing erosion and reducing the leaching of nitrogen into ground and surface waters. Kernza’s developers also think it could reduce greenhouse gases from food production by trapping significant amounts of carbon in the soil. It even provides good habitat for pollinators.

General Mills said it plans to buy a significant amount of Kernza via The Land Institute, though it doesn’t want to specify how much for competitive reasons. It will also donate $500,000 to the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative to support advanced research into breeding to increase yields and into how best to grow, mill and market the grain so that it succeeds in the long term, Lynch said.

Kernza was domesticated at the Land Institute, based in Salina, Kansas, which has been working for decades to develop a more natural, sustainable agricultural system. Intermediate wheatgrass, which had been used as cattle feed, was one of the first perennials to show promise for feeding humans, said Lee DeHaan, a lead scientist there.