Why Perennials? And more about Kernza: Interview with Wes Jackson in Modern Farmer

From an Interview with Wes Jackson in Modern Farmer

Why perennials?

WJ: With perennials you’re not tearing the ground up every year, so you preserve whatever has been going on below in the soil in terms of the bacteria, fungi, invertebrates, worms and so on—those are our workhorses below the surface. If they can stay in place, the crop is more efficient. You get all the services of nature that way.

If you’re tearing up the ground to plant annuals every year, not only do you lose those services, you’re also going to have soil erosion and more fossil fuels are required to work the ground. We are trying to get agriculture away from the extractive economy and into the renewable economy.

MF: How do the yields of Kernza compare to wheat and other grains?

WJ: The yield is really low which is one reason why it’s not more widely planted. Through breeding we’ve increased the kernel size to 2 to 3 times the original size of the wild grain; it’s comparable to the size of wheat kernels in 1930.

MF: So it will be an ongoing process of breeding to develop a perennial grain that can compete with annual grains on an economic basis?

WJ: Yes, but it’s moving along quickly. When I first started working on this 40 years ago, I said this is going to take 50 to 100 years. The yields are lower now, but my bet is that in the long run perennial grains will out-yield annuals. Remember, the annual grains we have now have been 10,000 years in the making [since farmers first started breeding wild grains]. We’ve been at this less than half a century. So I think we are ahead of the curve.

MF: Why do you think we went down the path of annuals rather than perennials?

WJ: That’s a good question, which I think our scientists here have now answered. Here’s the story. Annuals tend to self-pollinate—that is, they accept their own pollen—which is akin to botanical inbreeding. In humans that’s a problem. We don’t expect our children to be mating with one another because of all the deleterious genes that produces [laughs]. We’ve run that experiment—look at the pharaohs, and some of the European royalty of the past.

But in plants it can be a good thing because you create lots of mutant genes, some of which will be useful for agriculture. Mutant genes provide resistance for what we call seed shatter, for example, which means humans can easily strip the grain off the plant without harming it. When you cross- pollinate annual grains you get lots of these useful new genes, but it’s also easier to breed out any mutant genes that you don’t want with the annuals.

We like to joke that if you are working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.

Perennials, on the other hand, tend to outcross, rather than self-pollinate. Mutations are still occurring all the time, but with outcrossing it’s harder to get rid of the genetic traits you don’t want and preserve the ones you do.

MF: So primitive horticulturalists couldn’t figure out how to domesticate perennial grains, but you have.

WJ: Yes, we figured out how to purge those undesirable traits from the genome. It’s partly because of our knowledge of genetics, and partly our computational power. That’s why our ancestors didn’t do it, and why we can now.

MF: When you give lectures, you often refer to the “10,000-year problem.” What does that mean?

WJ: We’ve been around for 150,000 to 200,000 years with a big brain, our 1,350 cubic centimeter brain. But we’ve had agriculture for only 10,000 years—since the wheat plant was developed from its wild ancestors in the Zagros mountains of Western Iran. That was the moment in which nature began to be subdued, plowed up.

So there was a dualism that developed—wild nature, with virtually no soil erosion, and then us with the plow. It’s been going on for 10 millennia. Now we have not only soil erosion, but chemical contamination of the land and water with fertilizers and pesticides and so on. According to the United Nations, we lose about 30 million acres of arable land per year worldwide to degradation and desertification.

MF: Do you think that genetic engineering could have a role to play in developing perennial grains?

WJ: In plants, perennialism is a way of life. There is no one gene for it; it is spread across the genome, so to speak. The genetic engineering approach is to create some trait like resistance to Roundup, so you can drench the countryside with herbicide like Roundup in order to kill weeds. Then you have a chemical out there that we haven’t evolved with. Glyphosate, the chemical in Roundup, is considered a probable cause of cancer.

MF: What do you say to those that look at genetic engineering as a way to produce more food on less land?

WJ: What, so we can put more grains into our cattle and pig welfare program? So we can have ethanol, which takes more energy to produce than you get from it? We can do a lot of stupid things in order to accommodate the economy rather than to meet the needs of the land.

MF: I take it you’re opposed to genetic engineering across the board?

WJ: We understand ecology and evolutionary biology, so why do we keep insisting on introducing poisons to our land and our water? That’s the problem with genetic engineering. You also end up with a bunch of weeds that are resistant to Roundup. So this is not using our heads when tinkering with nature’s arrangements. We are evolutionary biologists here at The Land Institute. We are looking to the way nature’s systems have operated over millions of years, not some Johnny-come-lately thing.

MF: It seems you are just as interested and concerned with the relationship between agriculture and culture. In fact, you wrote a book years ago called Becoming Native to This Place. What does that mean?

WJ: Most of us did not evolve on this continent, and we have to remember that biologically we are still basically hunters and gatherers. But for the last 10,000 years we’ve displayed our human cleverness with the plow and more lately with chemicals and fossil fuel machinery. So our presence on the landscape is, in a sense, alien. We are a species out of context, out of the context of what shaped us.

I’ve written that I think the discovery of America lies before us. So far we have done what colonizing people do—we come in and take and do not pay much attention to tomorrow, or the next year, or the next century. That’s not having a culture. That is simply engaging with the world, with the ecosphere, as colonizers. Take and go.

MF: In another book you talk about “consulting the genius of a place.” What’s the genius and how do you consult with it?

WJ: Think about what this continent was when Europeans got here. There were indigenous groups here, and they were cutting trees here and there, and they were using fire to manage the prairies for game, and so on. But they were not plowing. It was still mostly nature’s ecosystems—forests, prairies, alpine meadows. These ecosystems are what we call perennial polycultures, mixtures of many species of plants and animals that function as a whole. When we came to this continent we created the opposite of that—annual monocultures.

So what we’ve done at The Land Institute is start with the question, What was here? What was here in Kansas was native prairie. So what we’re trying to do is have those same processes of wild nature brought onto the farm. That means we need perennials, and we need to grow them in mixtures. That’s the genius. The genius is the prairie or the forest or the alpine meadow.

MF: Sounds lovely. And it’s a far cry from the mindset of most of agriculture today.

WJ: This is the problem with long-term solutions. When I said it would take between 50 and 100 years I was 40 years old. There aren’t very many people who want to make a commitment to something like that. We like to joke that if you are working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.

From the Denver Post, March 2017, no till, no replanting perennial grain Kernza comes to Colorado and the Midwest.  For more reports, see further down. 

In this undated photo provided by The Land Institute of Salina, Kan., the top of a wheat floret is cut off, giving a technician access to the reproductive parts of the plant.
The Land Institute via AP

In this undated photo provided by The Land Institute of Salina, Kan., the top of a wheat floret is cut off, giving a technician access to the reproductive parts of the plant.

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.

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.

The institute has been collaborating for several years with the University of Minnesota, where agronomy professor Donald Wyse also tackles the challenges of developing perennials into food crops.

“All grain production in the world is produced by annual plants that are only on the landscape for a short time,” Wyse said. “Intermediate wheatgrass — Kernza — represents a big breakthrough in the design of new agricultural systems for the future.”

Researchers have been experimenting with intermediate wheatgrass since the 1980s. It has taken time to domesticate it into a crop and breed varieties that are productive enough for commercial use. Because it has been grown only on test plots until recently, there still isn’t much of it to go around.

And there are challenges that the researchers and General Mills are still addressing. Yields are still much lower than conventional wheat, though improving. The grains are tiny, more like grass seeds than conventional wheat, which makes milling more complicated. But it has some advantages in addition to its environmental benefits, including higher protein levels. The nutty flavor comes from its high bran content.

DeHaan and Wyse agreed that General Mills is making a huge contribution to their work by creating a market for the new grain so farmers will grow it, and by supporting the development of crops that provide ecological benefits while feeding people on a large scale.

“We’re looking at a company that has the capacity to produce products on a larger scale and market them on a large scale,” DeHaan said. “That’s where we see these perennial crops having to go, not just low-volume specialty producers but large-scale production that is going to be producing change in agriculture.”

This represents the second but largest major move so far to commercialize Kernza, though some artisanal bakeries and restaurants have experimented with it. Patagonia Provisions last fall teamed up with Hopworks Urban Brewery of Portland, Oregon, to roll out Long Root Ale, which is sold primarily at Whole Foods stores in California, Oregon and Washington state. The Kernza in the beer is grown in Minnesota.

Kernza ripens in a New 70 breeding plot at The Land Institute.

Kernza Grain: Toward a Perennial Agriculture

From Perennial Wheatgrass to the Kernza® Grain

Kernza GrainIn 1983, using Wes Jackson’s vision to develop perennial grain crops as inspiration and guidance, plant breeders at the Rodale Institute selected a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (scientific name Thinopyrum intermedium), a grass species related to wheat, as a promising perennial grain candidate. Beginning in 1988, researchers with the USDA and Rodale Institute undertook two cycles of selection for improved fertility, seed size, and other traits in New York state.

The Land Institute’s breeding program for intermediate wheatgrass began in 2003, guided by Dr. Lee DeHaan. Multiple rounds of selecting and inter-mating the best plants based on their yield, seed size, disease resistance, and other traits have been performed, resulting in improved populations of intermediate wheatgrass that are currently being evaluated and further selected at The Land and by collaborators in diverse environments.

Experiments are also underway to pair Kernza® with legumes in intercrop arrangements that achieve greater ecological intensification, and to utilize Kernza as a dual purpose forage and grain crop in diverse farming operations.

Kernza: A Tasty Work-in-Progress

Although Kernza grain has made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets, the goal of The Land Institute is to develop varieties of Kernza that are economical for farmers to produce at large scale.

The breeding program is currently focused on selecting for a number of traits including yield, shatter resistance, free threshing ability, seed size, and grain quality. They project that the first Kernza variety will be more widely available by 2019.

In the next 10 years, they aim to have a crop with seed size that is 50% of annual bread wheat seed size.  Their long-term goals include developing a semi-dwarf variety and improving bread baking quality.  Ultimately, they hope to develop a variety with yield similar to annual wheat and to see Kernza widely grown throughout the northern United States and in several other countries around the world. If that vision becomes a reality, you might see Kernza perennial grain in common staples found on grocery store shelves.

Kernza in the Field

Kernza Seed Heads Examined Land InstituteKernza grain plants are deeply rooted. Walking through an established field of mature plants, they are about chest high above the soil. The roots can extend 10 feet or more beneath the soil surface, more than twice the depth of and in greater density than annual wheat roots. In good conditions, the long, slender seed heads can contain more seeds than an annual wheat head, but Kernza seeds are currently about 1/5th the size of most conventional wheat seeds.

Kernza grain grows best in cooler northern latitudes. Although intermediate wheatgrass was consumed in ancient times, new varieties of Kernza grain can enable farmers to grow it profitably at scale and bring its environmental benefits to modern farms and diets. 

Kernza Grain Goes to Market

The Land Institute developed the registered trademark for Kernza grain to help identify intermediate wheatgrass grain that is certified as a perennial using the most advanced types of T. intermedium seed.

When you buy Kernza® perennial grain, you can be certain that you’re eating product grown on a perennial field that is building soil health, helping retain clean water, sequestering carbon, and enhancing wildlife habitat.

Patagonia Provisions was the first company to develop a commercial retail product made from Kernza® perennial grain for the mainstream marketplace.  Patagonia took a significant risk, breaking through the initial barrier to new product development and market entry.  That first-to-market product is Long Root Ale.

The initiative and investment on the part of Patagonia Provisions to bring Long Root Ale to market helped pave the way for other partnerships and potential Kernza® products becoming more widely available to consumers.  The hope is that increased demand for Kernza® products translates into more growers and acreage dedicated to Kernza® perennial grain, resulting in more Kernza® in production and on shelves, which in turn encourages more research and development into Kernza® and other perennial grains.

Patagonia’s early commitment to create a market for Kernza® is a significant milestone.  Yet the transformation to an agriculture and a food system based upon perennial grain crops is a complex and long-term endeavor requiring support for Kernza®; other perennial grains, oil-seeds, and legumes; and agro-ecological research beyond that which market forces alone can provide at this critical juncture.

The Land Institute has been leading this research effort for forty years and we welcome your support of our work to help sustain the next vital stage of this agricultural revolution.

Kernza® grain is the first perennial crop from The Land Institute’s work to be introduced into the agriculture and food markets, but our researchers are currently working on others, including perennial wheat, perennial rice, perennial sorghum, and wild sunflower, with more to come.

Find out about other perennial crops under development at The Land Institute on our Perennial Crops page.

Kernza® on the Plate

Bread Made with Kernza GrainStarting with hobbyist bakers on staff at The Land Institute, Kernza® has been tested in kitchens across the country for over a decade. Innovative chefs, bakers, brewers, distillers, researchers, and growers are using Kernza® in place of or combined with wheat or other grains.

It can be used in baked goods and is now being sold in a number of restaurants including The Perennial in San Francisco, California, and Birchwood Café in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many others have tested it in their products and kitchens. Although current strains of Kernza® grain are lower in gluten strength than annual wheat, consumers sensitive to gluten should exercise caution.

At this point, Kernza® is most frequently blended with annual wheat flour to make bread, and can make up 100% of the flour in quick breads (muffins, pancakes, etc.) or served as a pilaf like rice.

Kernza® has also been brewed into beer and distilled into spirits by a number of producers nationwide, most notably Long Root Ale from Patagonia Provisions

Got Kernza®? Want Kernza®?

If you are a farmer interested in growing Kernza or a baker, miller, brewer, or chef interested in purchasing Kernza seed or flour, please contact Plovgh.

Plovgh (pronounced “plow”) contracts with The Land Institute to help match Kernza consumers with farmers so our scientists can focus on research. All farmers growing Kernza® enter into a license agreement for use of the Kernza® trademark in the sale of the grain.

For media inquiries or additional information, contact Scott Allegrucci.

Related Scientific Publications

Wild Plants to the Rescue Efforts to domesticate new, high-yield, perennial grain crops require patience and persistence—but such plants could… READ MORE

Ecological Intensification & Perennial Polyculture

Nature as a Model Is Diverse and Perennial

Naturally occurring plant communities, whether forests, prairies, deserts, savannahs, or tundra, are almost universally dominated by diverse perennial species.

Plant diversity is important because it helps to keep populations of plant-loving insects and diseases in check. Diversity also tends to enhance productivity because resources such as sunlight, water, and nutrients are used more efficiently when species with different resource requirements grow together.

hands-soil-comparisonWith the intercrop systems, called polycultures, we hope to incorporate the benefits of diversity seen in nature.

Perenniality is important because when vegetation lives for many years, soils are not only protected against erosion, but they actually build and accumulate organic matter. Deep-rooted perennial plants are able to access nutrients and water that escape the reach of annual plants.

The Land Institute’s perennial breeding programsare working to replicate the perenniality that is commonplace in nature.

Ecological Intensification: The Big Picture for Perennial Agriculture

In contrast to naturally occurring plant communities, our current grain-producing plant communities – that is corn and wheat fields – feature annual crop species with typically low levels of diversity. It is entirely predictable, therefore, that our agricultural ecosystems tend to experience high levels of pest pressures, soil erosion, loss of soil organic matter, and nutrient leakage.

In recent years, researchers around the world have begun to propose that “ecological intensification” – that is, harnessing ecological processes to supplant the need for commercial inputs like fertilizers and pesticides – will be necessary to maintain food production while reducing environmental impacts of agriculture.

By using models of naturally occurring plant communities, Land Institute researchers believe that previously unattainable levels of ecological intensification are possible with perennial polycultures.

Multiple Levels of Ecological Intensification

At The Land Institute, we’re working on three levels of ecological intensification to transform agriculture from having a degenerative to a regenerative impact:

Species Level

All species in natural ecosystems have undergone many cycles of natural selection resulting in adaptations to specific ecological conditions. For example, many grass species have developed resistance to specific plant diseases. Genes coding for disease resistance can be incorporated into perennial cropsthrough breeding. Perennialism is another trait that occurs at the species level and is controlled by numerous genes.

Community Level

Plant communities in wild ecosystems usually feature many species. Biodiversity in plant communities helps to reduce disease and insect damage throughout the system, and helps plants take advantage of resources such as water, nutrients, and sunlight. Multi-species communities will help ensure more stable ecosystems for perennial grain agriculture.

Ecosystem Level

It is extremely rare for wild ecosystems to remain in a disturbed state for very long. After disturbances like fire, drought, or floods, perennial species either re-sprout or germinate and take over dominance from ephemeral annual plants. Below ground, the quality of soil organic matter changes during succession as does the community of microorganisms that it supports.

What in the World Is Succession, and Why Does It Matter?

Ecological succession is a process of change that occurs after forests, grasslands, or other types of ecosystems have been disturbed by things like fire, floods, or drought.

If disturbances are intense, ecosystems can be set back to very early stages of succession, often characterized by the proliferation of annual plant species, losses of nutrients, soil organic matter, and even topsoil itself.

In the wild, periods of high disturbance are almost always brief. No sooner does the ecosystem get knocked back with a disturbance such as a very hot fire, than perennial plants begin to sprout, soil organic matter begins to rebuild, soil microbes change, and the functioning of the ecosystem begins to improve.

In modern annual agriculture, we hold the ecosystem in the highly disturbed and highly compromised state indefinitely. By arresting succession, we make “permanent” a poorly functioning ecosystem that is extremely transient in natural ecosystems.

Perennial crops, which put far more energy into roots below ground and do not require frequent disturbance, allow for succession to take place once again.

At The Land Institute, we are learning about the role succession plays in governing ecosystem functions in newly developed perennial polycultures.

Tim Crews
Director of Research and Lead Scientist, Ecology Program

Related Scientific Publications Going where no grains have gone before Abstract: Annual-based arable agroecosystems experience among the greatest frequency, extent and magnitude of disturbance regimes…READ MORE

New roots for ecological intensification To meet the global food challenge of 2050, and well beyond, there is a growing…

Wild Plants to the Rescue

Author: David Van Tassel, Lee DeHaan

Publication: American Scientist

Efforts to domesticate new, high-yield, perennial grain crops require patience and persistence—but such plants could transform agriculture

kernza_root

“You had to spend all those years in graduate school to do this?” my mother asked in disbelief. I was walking slowly backwards and dragging a heavy board, at the end of which was another heavy piece of lumber with foot-long bolts sticking through it at three-foot intervals. As the bolts scraped the soil they made parallel lines. I was trying to make those lines as straight as possible.

The reason I was dragging this medieval-looking contraption, and the reason my coauthor Lee DeHaan had built it, was to form a giant grid to help correctly place thousands of seedlings of a wild sunflower relative,Helianthus maximiliani. The seedlings needed to be at equal distances from each other and in an arrangement that allowed us to map their location. Each seedling was genetically unique, with a known family history, and each had an empty row in my spreadsheet waiting to be filled with data: height at flowering, number of seed heads, stalk diameter, leaf length and width, number of seeds per head, weight of 100 seeds. Most of these traits are fairly objective and would be measured by pairs of student field assistants, one with a ruler or measuring pole, the other with a notebook or handheld computer. For consistency, I would need to score other, more subjective traits: foliar disease severity on a scale from 1 to 9, percent of heads at a certain stage of maturation on a certain day, severity of lodging (the tendency of stalks to lean, droop or even collapse).

Because these plants are long-lived, we would be collecting data for two seasons. We would get to know the plants intimately. But of the 1,000 in this experiment, only the top-ranked 50 would be kept and mated together, their offspring used to create the next breeding population. The remaining 950 would be ruthlessly plowed in. I was molding a hardy but agriculturally useless wild plant into an oilseed grain crop, something natural selection could never have accomplished. Like a god—but a sweaty, exhausted one.

Of course, all Sylvia Van Tassel could see was her tired son dragging a board through an empty field for hours. I don’t think she ever visited me in September, when my research plots are a vast golden bouquet of thousands of wild sunflowers. She might not have been impressed even then: I had told her for years that my work would help feed people some day. Unfortunately, the sunflowers didn’t look much like a crop. My colleague Sheila Cox and I usually have at least one plot each year that we refer to as “the jungle,” and most of the others are nearly as tall and tangled.

Mom certainly would have raised her eyebrows at the tiny seeds the plants produce, if I had dared to show her. But plenty of people have been drawn to investigate the idea of grain crops that are perennial rather than annual. The Soviets were trying to breed a perennial wheat as far back as the 1930s. J. Russell Smith’s 1953 book Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture influenced a generation of ecologists and agronomists, including Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, where DeHaan and I work. In a 2010 article in Science, scientists from 21 institutions on 5 continents called for serious investment in perennial grain crops, and this call has been echoed in more recent publications. More generally, scientists concerned about the combined impact of climate change, continued human population growth and resource depletion on global food security have warned against complacency with our existing crops and cropping systems, and have urged innovative agricultural research.

Our domestication efforts take place at the Land Institute, founded in 1976. We begin with wild relatives of crops—Van Tassel’s breeding program focuses on sunflowers and DeHaan’s on wheat. We have chosen for practical reasons to use relatively low-tech methodologies. Still, our mothers might be forgiven for wondering if something doesn’t quite add up. Their highly educated sons are supposedly working on long-term food security—surely the most pressing and basic challenge for science and policy—on a bold project that many respected scientists have agreed could lead to a breakthrough. Yet here they are scrabbling in the dirt at a small organization privately funded by citizens’ donations. If this work is so important, where are the powerful institutions, the high-tech equipment, the labs full of students? On her first visit to the institute, DeHaan’s mother marveled that an organization with such a lofty mission was housed in what looked like a modest family farm.

Appearances aside, small nonprofit research organizations like the Land Institute occupy a unique niche in the crop-improvement ecosystem. Although progress requires time and patience on a scale that family members, friends and fellow scientists may find surprising, our plants improve year by year, and the prospects for expanding and accelerating this work are promising.

It’s worth noting that our definition of grains is broad. Botanically speaking, many grains are actually fruits (for example, wheat or sunflower “seeds”). For our purposes, a grain is any hard, dry seed or fruit that can be harvested like a grain—including oilseed crops such as sunflower. Many kinds of plants may offer candidates for breeding perennial grains, from desert shrubs to plants capable of growing in seawater. We hope that our work toward perennial oilseeds and cereals will inform and inspire researchers and funding organizations—those who are already at work domesticating other kinds of plants and those who might wish to begin. New staple crops with enhanced functionality will help efforts to stabilize the world’s food supply and reduce the soil degradation that comes with large-scale annual grain production.

The Art and Science of Domestication

wildplants2

Since 2000, when our current perennial-grain breeding programs began, the Land Institute has expanded, built new facilities and invested in new research technologies. Although we occasionally use DeHaan’s wooden contraption to lay out small plots, more often we use a mechanical transplanter, capable of planting in hours the number of plants we used to set in days spent on hands and knees. Although we can’t get a perfect grid with this technique, we use a GPS unit with centimeter-level precision to map the location of each plant in the field. These modest technological improvements, along with others, such as bar-code readers and handheld computers, allow us to study many more plants each season. In 2012, between our two domestication programs, we evaluated over 40,000 recently transplanted, individually spaced genotypes.

Plant breeding is always a numbers game. In our case it is even more so. The wild species we use are rich in genetic variation, and individual plants are highly heterozygous and do not breed true. In addition, we are looking for rare alleles, so the more plants we try, the better. These rarities may be new mutations, or they can be existing ones that are neutral—or are even selected against—in a wild population. A good example is mutations that disrupt seed dispersal, leaving the seeds on the heads long after they are ripe. An individual expressing this trait, known as shatter resistance, would have reduced fitness in the wild, but it is precisely the kind of plant we are looking for. Shatter resistance is an absolute requirement for a grain crop, because once grain falls to the ground it is virtually impossible for the farmer to recover it.


wildplants3Sidebar: Perennially Productive. 
Plant domestication has resulted in small, short-lived, high-yield annual crops and longer-lived, larger perennial crops. But smaller plants with the yield of annuals and the lifespan of perennials have not developed. The authors hope to fill this gap. For more, click the image at left.

Although we use each plant’s pedigree, along with sophisticated genetics software, to make predictions about the breeding value of each plant, our overall approach could be considered rather old fashioned, even “brute force.” It certainly feels like brute force, physically weeding, harvesting and threshing thousands of plants. Another downside of this strategy is that we produce tens of thousands of data points, but relatively little in the way of publishable results. Our work might be compared to that of a natural-products chemist who screens millions of microbes for novel antibiotics. But unlike the pharmaceutical industry, we do not have standard assays or product-pipeline benchmarks. Chemists know that antibiotics exist and that novel ones are periodically discovered. We have satisfied ourselves, through deductive reasoning and careful reading of the literature, that wild perennial herbs and shrubs can be domesticated to offer dramatically higher grain yield than their wild ancestors, but this has never actually been done.

In our efforts to produce at least one breakthrough on the scale of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, we have reasoned that it is most important to push evolutionary change as fast as possible. When we have made more progress, perhaps we will find more opportunities for funding and collaboration, allowing us to analyze more carefully what exactly happened during the domestication process and describe how it could be repeated and, if possible, accelerated. That first breakthrough may come from a wild wheat relative.

The Kernza Story

wildplants4

When we embarked on our breeding program, our primary approach was to develop perennial grain crops by hybridizing current annual crops with perennial relatives. We saw this method as a shortcut that would allow us to begin with domestication genes that had accumulated over thousands of years. All that was needed, we figured, was to introduce the key lifestyle trait of perenniality from a related species. The approach has promise, and for some crops, we are continuing along this path.

But back in 2001 we were also intrigued by the possibility of improving the wild perennial species themselves in order to develop entirely new perennial grain crops. With this strategy we could avoid the genetic complications that arise when two species are crossed (sterility, for instance), and we would be assured of having a strongly perennial plant to work with.

We started side projects to investigate the potential of numerous wild perennial species. One of these was intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), a species that had been studied by another nonprofit organization, the Rodale Institute, since 1987. The species is, as the name suggests, a grass; but it is no more closely related to wheat than barley or rye. After about six years of giving the wheatgrass part-time attention, we began to see signs that we could make good progress through breeding. Although our best estimates showed that it would take about 30 years to match the yield of wheat, we also saw that it would be possible to obtain a crop that farmers could successfully grow and market in much less time.

At this point we encountered one of the less scientific problems with domesticating a new species: the name. “Intermediate wheatgrass” just doesn’t have the ring of any of our current grains’ names—corn, rice, or wheat. So we came up with a name that we hoped would be unique and catchy, and remind people of Kansas. We called this crop-in-the-making kernza.

The Land Institute also decided to give domestication full standing as an approach for obtaining perennial grain crops. DeHaan and a technician were assigned to work on the project, which allowed us the time and attention to develop larger programs and collaborations. This step was critical: We knew that the introduction of a new crop would require a lot more than just breeding and genetics.

wildplants5The University of Minnesota now has an interdisciplinary project to develop kernza as a perennial grain and to use the residue for biofuels or animal feed. The research team, of which DeHaan is a member, includes researchers from the fields of agronomy, food science, plant breeding, soil science, plant pathology and economics. Plots are established at six sites around the state of Minnesota. Additional plantings in other states and in Canada are helping us evaluate the crop’s performance in diverse environments.

Because kernza is a relative of wheat and other grains, genomic approaches may allow us to transfer the knowledge gained from the study of these crops to the development of this new grain. Rather than transferring genes from wheat to kernza, we are studying the genomes in an effort to identify useful genes from wheat that are already present in kernza, but need only be discovered. We are also hopeful that marker-assisted selection will be helpful in sorting out some of the complexities involved in breeding a species that is both outcrossing—it can’t pollinate itself and thereby doesn’t breed true—and polyploid—having multiple genomes, which can result in complex gene segregation patterns. To these ends, sequencing work is now beginning at several institutions.

wildplants6All of this work is valuable, but we still believe that domestication comes down to evaluating very large numbers of plants in the field and selecting the best to intermate. This activity requires sustained, long-term commitment. In a conventional plant breeding program, 10 to 15 years may be required from the time a first cross is made to when a variety resulting from that cross is offered to farmers. But when the breeding pipeline is full—when new crosses are made every year—varieties can be released on a regular basis. Everyone from farmers to administrators to plant breeders can be satisfied that there is good evidence of progress. The case for breeding programs that are more experimental and that are not connected to a commercial program is more tenuous: Even if a new domestication program is sustained for a decade, the plants it is developing may not yet have economic value, and any value they have accumulated will be quickly lost if the program is discontinued.

In the case of kernza, we measured 14,000 individuals in the field last year. We intermated the best plants and, based on past experience, we expect that the yield will increase by about another 20 percent. This is a truly amazing rate of progress—but varieties that are usable by farmers remain a goal for the future.

The Nonprofit Niche

wildplants7Kernza has now had over two decades of sustained breeding work. This effort would not have been possible without the dedication of two nonprofit organizations and their funders, who were willing to see this work through without a short-term return on their investment. The crop is now being investigated at several universities, a step that occurred only after substantial investment by nonprofits.

To be fair, the process is not completely one-directional, with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on wild material and passing more refined plant material up the line to large research organizations and companies. Some government and intergovernmental agencies have been deliberately set up to facilitate high-risk, long-term work. The best example is the system of national and international germplasm collections. At the Land Institute, we made our own direct collections of native sunflower germplasm, but the Rodale Institute took advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Germplasm Resources Information Network’s excellent collection of Thinopyrum intermedium seeds from central Asia. The National Resource Conservation Service’s Big Flats Plant Materials Center helped preserve and improve the breeding population when the Rodale Institute’s breeding program closed. The Land Institute took on the project from there. The result of all this work was kernza.

Moreover, all the work we do is built upon the body of basic botanical and genetic research produced by the world’s universities since the time of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. New molecular tools developed by universities and life science companies could help us accelerate our work.

It is nevertheless remarkable that young nonprofit organizations should undertake projects that older, much better funded institutions and corporations won’t touch or have abandoned. One explanation for this phenomenon is the tendency for institutions to mature along with the technologies they were founded to develop. The land-grant colleges and state experiment stations of 100 years ago, and the international crop-improvement centers of 50 years ago, probably looked and operated more like today’s agricultural NGOs than modern research universities. The crops they worked with would appear only partially domesticated to our eyes, and their breeders tackled some of the same kinds of challenges faced by those of us doing domestication today.

Some plant breeders express concern that fewer students are being trained in breeding techniques at university and government experiment stations, and that existing programs have increasingly invested in gene- and genome-level research. But perhaps the era of domestication of our traditional crops is over. We may have gotten almost as much yield as possible through reshaping plant form and allocation patterns, and new gains may require precision targeting genes for plant health and grain chemistry. The adjustments that remain possible to make are fine scale; they require techniques capable of identifying more subtle and smaller phenotypes. The institutions devoted to the wheat, rice, maize and soybean economy have changed in parallel with the needs of their client species. The trade-off is that these programs are probably less adapted for working with large, primitive, diverse populations than they were a century ago.

A second difference between mainstream research and nonprofits is that funding for universities and experiment stations increasingly comes from competitive grants. Allocation of funds at this scale becomes dependent on an average of the opinions of numerous bureaucrats, lawmakers, administrators and committees. This is a far cry from the privately wealthy gentlemen of science of the 17th to 19th centuries, some of whom (including Darwin) were able to spend decades developing their theories without having to convince grant reviewers of their ideas’ merit or utility.

Jackson, whose ideas reviewers might have considered heretical or impractical, chose to find the nonprofit equivalent of venture capital to fund the Land Institute’s research, rather than try to meet the expectations of those grant review panels. But individual philanthropists and visionary CEOs present other challenges for research programs: They may have more freedom to support high-risk, high-impact projects than established bureaucracies, but they are also free to change their priorities at any time. Only unceasing education of the donor community and unwavering administrative priorities have allowed Land Institute researchers to maintain such long-term programs.

Even if many of our colleagues in the scientific mainstream who are interested in new crop domestication find themselves constrained by institutional culture and funding issues, we have found that a relatively small amount of domestication can make a species much more amenable to academic research and funding. Simply providing food chemists with quantities of kernza grain and flour made it possible for them to plan experiments. Likewise, making available genetically improved breeding populations reduces the risk and time required for starting a regional breeding program—as is happening in the research program on kernza in Minnesota.

Amber Waves of Sunflowers

Early-stage plant domestication is truly a process of trial and error. We make observations on many candidate species and carry a number of them through several generations of selection. At some point, entire species may have to be culled so we can invest intensely in more promising candidates. Another species that at first seemed less promising may respond to a few cycles of selection in a dramatic way. We have learned that a wild species’ average traits, particularly if measured on plants growing in a natural ecosystem, tells us little about what potential it will have when growing under agricultural conditions—and even less about the potential of rare individuals.

Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani) has been our top perennial oilseed candidate for domestication since 2000. Fast growing and widely adapted, this species produces many tiny seeds. But recently a close relative and another subject of our research, Silphium integrifolium, has emerged as another promising plant. In its wild state, Silphium appears to be a poor crop candidate. Its traits are almost the opposite of maximilian sunflower: It establishes slowly, flowering only in its second year. Its seeds are very large for a wild plant, but it produces only 15 to 20 per head in the wild. The flower heads have hundreds of florets, but the vast majority are staminate, producing only pollen rather than developing into seeds. In this genus, the seed-bearing florets are found on the rim of the head, where they produce one very long petal and several tiny ones. Collectively, these inconspicuous florets create the large ring of showy sunflower petals that attracts the attention of bees and painters—and plant breeders. It was those large seeds that kept us from completely disregarding this species.

Was there genetic variation for the number of pistillate florets in Silphium, we wondered? In 2004 we grew thousands of plants and spent days walking through the field counting the number of long petals. That number indicates the maximum number of seeds the head can produce. We found and flagged a few dozen plants with heads bearing more than 25 petals, and we covered the next unopened head on each plant with a cloth bag to keep out pollen carried by butterflies and other insects. We checked these bags every day or two. If a bagged head was shedding pollen, we brushed it off into a small jar. Then we went back through the bagged plants, checking for heads with receptive stigmas and pollinating them with this mixed pollen. (Silphium is self-incompatible, so a plant’s own pollen will not fertilize its ovules.) We collected the resulting seeds and planted them the next year. A year later we repeated the process, this time raising the bar: Only plants with 35 long petals were flagged and bagged. Again and again we repeated this cycle of selection and intermating. In 2012 several plants had heads with more than 100 long petals, and one plant had more than 150.

This is the kind of low-tech, protracted genetic work that could never have been funded through competitive grants. It was a back-burner project even at the Land Institute, and we did not keep careful records of average petal number or calculate heritabilities. We simply tried to find the most extreme plants in the population and intermate them. Recently, we began to feel confident that this trait responded well enough to selection that the number of seeds per head was not likely to impose serious limitations.

This year we estimated yields more carefully. In our unfertilized breeding nursery, the average seed yield in 2012 was 278 pounds per acre, although some plant families did much better. That’s not very impressive compared with the typical yields of 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per acre obtained from commercial annual hybrid cultivars in a nearby experiment at Kansas State University’s South Central Kansas Experiment Field. However, this was not a typical couple of years. Our 2012 Silphium yield compares quite favorably with that of the commercial sunflowers in 2011, 263 pounds per acre, and 2012—0 pounds per acre. During these drought years, Silphium grew normally while native grasses, annual sunflower cultivars and even some perennial grain species showed severe stress and stunting.

Prairie ecologist John Weaver noted in 1935 that S. integrifolium flowered normally in the great drought of 1934, when many other prairie plants turned brown and dormant. He attributed this success to Silphium’s deep roots. Perhaps it will be the next slightly domesticated perennial grain to move up through the crop-development pipeline. Years of somewhat informal breeding seem to have greatly increased the species’ yield potential, although a few cycles of selection for actual yield, not just petal number, are needed to increase the average yields. We have also seen great variation in the amount of seed shattering, although we have not done much selection for that. The oil content of the grains is similar to cultivated sunflower, and Silphium has more protein than its domesticated cousin. Suddenly we find that this candidate, with its large seeds and upright growth form, is more promising than the interspecific perennial–annual hybrids and the maximilian sunflower on which we have spent much more effort.

Once we have a population with reduced shattering and have demonstrated that Silphium can be harvested mechanically at the 5- to 10-acre scale, this candidate should be much more attractive to potential university collaborators around the world. We still need to learn much more about its soil fertility requirements, pathology, ecology and oil chemistry. But its surprise potential illustrates the need for careful research over a broad range of species—even those that may not initially seem that promising.

The Next Grains

wildplants8Grains form the basis of the global food system, and they can relatively easily be processed into liquid fuels. Many new possibilities for crop development can be found in these plants. Perennial grains developed from tropical plants are the most obvious area for further research. We do not know how well the temperate-grassland–adapted species we are working on might perform in the humid or arid tropics, but even if they can be bred for adaptation to those climates, there is a wealth of indigenous vegetation likely to produce better candidates.

Saline environments are even more challenging. More than 4 million square kilometers of cropland are already salinized, and additional land is at risk, mostly as a result of years of irrigation. Although plant breeders are having some success in increasing the salt tolerance of standard crops, others have predicted that strong salt tolerance is genetically complex and that domestication of wild halophytes (salt-loving plants) might be more successful in the long term. At least one halophyte has traditionally been harvested for grain by the Native Americans of the Colorado River delta: Distichlis palmeri.

Woody crops have been traditionally placed in a separate category from grains, but some, like chestnuts and hazelnuts, have food value similar to plants more usually recognized as grains. Breeding for reduced height and threshability might make it possible to harvest these nuts nearly as easily as corn. Any plant with starch-, oil- or protein-rich reproductive structures that can be harvested, transported and processed like a grain is a candidate for investigation.

Most humans will be seed-eaters for the foreseeable future, it seems. Alternatives to seed-based food systems, such as algae or enzymatic conversion of cellulose, have been proposed, but they have received almost no funding. Fortunately, we live on a planet with more than 220,000 species of seed-bearing plants. These species occupy almost every global habitat across a wide span of plant forms and sizes. The crop base of the world’s food system could be dramatically broadened in the next several decades—if other organizations can replicate the conditions Wes Jackson created at the Land Institute, in which projects are given, in his words, “the freedom to fail,” along with sufficient time to prove their potential.

Bibliography

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Perennial Food Security

Author: Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations

In August 2013, our scientists helped the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations organize a workshop in Rome on the role of perennial crops in providing food security. Since then the FAO published a book on the proceedings. Here are links to the document: in its entirety, by section, and by chapter.

Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

With a goal as bold as “changing the way the world grows its food,” we know that partners are a critical element to success. The Land Institute’s research partners provide insight, operations support, connectivity, and an expanded community of brainpower and technical capacity.

Our research partners and collaborators are helping to develop Natural Systems Agriculture. In many ways, plant breeding is a numbers game – the more experimental lines evaluated, the better our odds of developing superior, high-yielding perennial crop varieties.

Although The Land Institute is headquartered in Salina, Kansas, our global partnerships spread our researchers’ knowledge and botanical germplasm across five continents with diverse climates and soil types. With our partners, we are dedicated to ensuring worldwide food security without compromising ecosystems integrity through locally adapted, perennial agriculture systems.

Below is a list and description of research groups with which we exchange data or plant material, directly collaborate, and/or provide funding.

Partner Institutions

Agricultural Research Council, South Africa

1134 Park St, Pretoria, 0028, South Africa

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CIMMYT Turkey Wheat Program, Turkey

Yenimahalle/Ankara, Turkey

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Cornell University

Ithaca, NY 14850

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Council for Research and Experimentation in Agriculture, Italy

Rome, Italy

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Gorrill Farm Research Station

984 N 1800 Rd, Lawrence, KS 66049, United States

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ICRISAT

BP 320 Bamako, Mali

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ICRISAT

CG Centers Block NASC Complex Dev Prakash Shastri Marg New Delhi 110012, India

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Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China

50 Zhongling Street, Nanjing 210014, China

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Jimma University, Ethiopia

Jimma 378, Ethiopia

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Kansas State University

Manhattan, KS 66506

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Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, Canada

5403 1 Ave S, Lethbridge, AB T1J 4P4, Canada

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Lund University, Sweden

Lund, Sweden

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Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

Kampala, Central Region, Uganda

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Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Germany

Carl-von-Linne-Weg 10, 50829 Köln, Germany

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Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI, United States

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Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (MEF), Trelew, Argentina

Trelew, Argentina

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Namik Kemal University, Turkey

Merkez/Tekirdağ, Turkey

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National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute, Serere, Uganda

Serere, Eastern Region, Uganda

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New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, Australia

New South Wales, Australia

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Northwest A & F University, China

3 Taicheng Rd, 杨凌区 Xianyang, Shaanxi, China, 712100

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Ohio State University

Columbus, OH

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Oklahoma State University

Stillwater, OK 74074

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Red River Valley Agricultural Research Center, USDA-ARS

Fargo, ND, United States

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Saint Louis University and Missouri Botanical Garden

St. Louis, MO

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Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) Alnarp Campus

SLU, Box 52, SE-230 53 Alnarp

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Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Uppsala Campus

Uppsala, Sweden

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Texas A&M

College Station, TX

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Universidad de la Republica, Uruguay

Montevideo, Uruguay

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University of Colorado, Boulder

Boulder, CO, United States

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University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

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University of Georgia

Athens, GA

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University of Kansas

Lawrence, KS, United States

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University of Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba, Canada

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University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, MN, United States

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University of Vermont

Burlington, VT

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University of Wisconsin, Madison

Madison, WI, United States

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Utah State University

Logan, UT

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Washington State University

Pullman, WA

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Yunnan University, China

Yunnan, China

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