Flickr/Candace Fladager

Environment Farm Shelf

General Mills announced on Tuesday a commitment to support the commercialization of Kernza, the Land Institute-developed perennial grain. In addition to half a million dollars in research funding for the grain’s continued development, the company has committed to buying some of the grain for its Cascadian Farm brand.

In case you’ve missed it, Kernza has been making waves (of grain) for a while now. We first heard of it being used in the bread at Perennial, a restaurant Bon Appetit called “maybe the most sustainable restaurant in America,” which we covered back in June. And on October 1, the grain popped up again in a beer released by Patagonia Provisions, which is now available in select Whole Foods stores.

Its seeds are small, its yield isn’t all that high, and we hear it tastes kinda grassy. So why all the fuss?

First of all, it’s a perennial, which means farmers don’t have to replant it year after year. And its roots grow really long over time—up to ten feet—which does a lot to reduce erosion because farmers don’t have to till the crop every year. Kernza comes with tons of ancillary environmental benefits, too. It sequesters carbon. Its long life reduces the need for pesticide and fertilizer application. Its roots reduce nitrogen leaching. Add it all up, and Kernza starts to look really good for the soil. And if farmers start to plant it on a large scale, the grain could mean a serious step forward for climate-friendly agriculture. Did we mention it’s drought-resistant?

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.

But, as we’ve reported before, it’s not that easy to sell people on new grain varieties. Consumers are used to dirt-cheap flour, and alternative grains can be a tough adjustment for home cooks and professional chefs alike. A buyer like General Mills could mean Kernza bypasses the sell-it-to-chefs-and-everyone-else-will-eventually-catch-on marketing strategy, leapfrogging heritage-breed meat, trash fish, seaweed, and other really good food ideas that have struggled to find their place in the mainstream market. Land Institute scientist Lee DeHaan told AP that General Mills is exactly the type of advocate they’re looking for.

“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.” Kernza’s been in development since the 1980s, but most of us have never had a chance to try it. And that’s sort of the point of this path to commercialization: We can’t really call it the “next big thing”—another buzzy, obscure grain we have to chase to some East or West Coast restaurant to try (and then Instagram). But what large-scale support means is that Kernza can get in American kitchens as an ingredient we barely even notice in our honey oat crunch. And that will be big. General Mills expects the first products containing Kernza will hit shelves as soon as early next year.

H. Claire Brown

A North Carolina native, Claire Brown joins The New Food Economy after working on the editorial team at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. She won the New York Press Club's Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award in 2017. Follow her at @hclaire_brown.