When Patagonia decided to go into the beer business, part of the motivation was fighting climate change: The key ingredient in its beer, a grain called Kernza, is particularly good at storing carbon as it grows. Today, Cascadian Farm announced a limited-edition cereal made with the same ingredient. Both companies are hoping to help move the food into the mainstream.
“The reality is, we are literally pioneering how you grow an ingredient,” says Maria Carolina Comings, marketing director at Cascadian Farm.
Growing in the field, Kernza–a type of wheatgrass–looks a little like ordinary wheat. But unlike wheat, it’s a perennial crop, meaning that it doesn’t need to be replanted each year. Farmers can avoid plowing the soil, a step that releases carbon; soil actually stores more carbon than the atmosphere and plants combined. As it grows, Kernza’s roots reach more than 10 feet underground, helping add more carbon to the ground by creating a home for microbes.
“Roots are the main way that soil carbon is built,” says Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute, a Kansas-based nonprofit that has been breeding the grain for 16 years. “You can think of Kernza and other perennial crops as really like carbon pumps that are increasing the amount of the carbon that they take out of the air that actually sticks in the soil.” The plant acts similarly to native prairie grasses that have been largely replaced by agriculture.
The grain, a variety of wheatgrass originally from Central Asia, was already used to grow feed for livestock. But The Land Institute saw the potential to breed it a version that would be productive enough to use in human food, and branded the product Kernza. Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard was familiar with the work, and the environmental benefits beyond carbon sequestration; the crop also helps prevent soil erosion and its deep roots help keep water systems clean. It’s also better nutritionally, with more protein, fiber, and antioxidants than wheat.
“Yvon put a bag of Kernza on my desk and said, ‘Go talk to [The Land Institute] and see if we can do something about this,” says Birgit Cameron, director of Patagonia Provisions, the outdoor retailer’s seven-year-old food business. The company helped the ingredient get food safety approval from the FDA, and started helping set up infrastructure to commercialize it. In 2016, it released Long Root Ale, its first beer made with Kernza. Last week, working with Portland-based Hopworks Urban Brewery, it released the Belgian-style Long Root Wit.
The beer is available in relatively limited quantities and only in some states. Cascadian Farm, as the first major brand to launch a product using Kernza, wants to use the ingredient at a bigger scale. The cereal that just launched was initially set to be available nationwide in Whole Foods and other natural retailers. Instead, because inclement weather unexpectedly ruined most of the crop, Cascadian Farm was only able to launch the cereal, Honey Toasted Kernza, in a limited edition of 6,000 boxes.
Farmers, along with both brands, are just beginning to learn how to work with the food. Wheat has a 10,000-year history; Kernza has only been around for a couple of decades, and only about 1,200 acres of the crop are in production. The plant “comes with all sorts of unique challenges,” says Comings. The grain is also the wrong size to be milled on the same equipment as wheat, so the company had to work with its partners to find an alternative way to mill it. Cascadian Farm also had to figure out how to cook with it to keep the flavor of the ingredient stable in its cereal. The taste is unique and somewhat nutty, so the company paired the grain with honey to bring out that flavor. (The cereal also still uses some whole wheat as an ingredient, though future products could rely solely on Kernza.)
Another challenge is yield, because even after years of breeding, Kernza still produces far less grain than wheat. Catching up to wheat could still take time, even if it’s far less time than wheat took to get to the same point. “We think that it’s a matter of decades rather than centuries to get this up to levels of productivity where it could start displacing a very large percentage of annual grain production,” says Iutzi. “But we think it’s definitely achievable.” Cascadian Farm has a test plot on its own farm near Seattle where it is supplementing the research at The Land Institute.
Both Patagonia and Cascadian Farm, along with the cereal brand’s parent company General Mills, are hoping to support and potentially accelerate the process. Cameron cautions that the crop should be scaled up gradually enough that farmers stick to certain principles, such as growing the plant organically. But as more companies like General Mills take it on, more fields could be planted quickly. One part of the process involves creating demand from consumers. Comings believes that interest could be strong. “You have this delightful grain that tastes delicious,” she says. “We can put it in a cereal, which folks eat nearly every day. It just felt so logical: climate benefit in a way that a consumer can be interested in.” The company is selling its limited-edition cereal through a site called Deeply Rooted for Good. (Each box, at $25, benefits The Land Institute.)
“We say this is the most important box of cereal we’ve ever made,” says Comings. “Because it could change climate in a way that actually feels really tenable for us.”
Correction: The article has been updated with the correct name of the cereal and how kernza affects water use.