in Extra Matter

Kernza crop failure could speed success

Maybe you’ve seen the news that a Kernza crop failure has prompted General Mills to modify plans for a Kernza-based breakfast cereal. Instead of rolling out the product this year, the company is instead offering a box only to people who donate at least $25 to The Land Institute, the perennial crops organisation that has spent years developing Kernza.

Still from a video by The Land Institute showing the difference between Kernza and wheat root systems

Still from a video by The Land Institute showing the difference between Kernza and wheat root systems

There are a couple of things about the story that intrigue me. First, for anyone who doesn’t know, Kernza is a perennial cousin of wheat, which offers several potential advantages over its annual cousin. Mostly, these are the result of being a perennial that develops a root system much more extensive than wheat’s. Not having to preopare the soil each year, along with that root system, means that Kernza can reduce soil erosion considerably. It also reduces the leaching of nitrogen from the soil. All that currently comes at a cost, though, because Kernza also yields less grain than wheat.

The 2018 harvest was even lower than expected, however, because of “weather and mistimed planting and harvesting decisions”. That’s unfortunate, but these are early days and further research will surely help farmers to make better decisions about when to sow and when to reap. What I don’t understand, and the article barely makes mention of it, is whether the crop, being perennial, will simply regenerate itself this year. If so, and I hope it will, that would be yet another advantage over annual wheat.

Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, always talks of harvesting ready-mixed granola from a mixed stand of various perennial crops. [1] Honey toasted Kernza cereal isn’t quite that, but there are apparently 6000 boxes available. At $25 a pop, that should be $150,000 for more research. And eventually, Kernza cereal everywhere, and maybe even perennial granola.


  1. He was already doing so when I visited, back in the 1980s.  ↩

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