This week on Rootstock Radio, we hear from Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute, about the importance of developing perennial food crops. The Land Institute seeks to develop agriculture that will be sustainable for years and generations to come, focusing on the cultivation of perennial crops and polyculture cropping systems.
To this end, The Land Institute has developed a wild relative of annual wheat, called Kernza®, taking it from perennial forage crop to perennial grain crop through what Fred fondly calls “good old-fashioned plant breeding.”
Fred says, “If we really want to stabilize the ecosystem that our grain crop production represents, we need to be going farther toward mimicking the natural ecosystems that are what built the soils in the Midwest.” What is the linchpin of these ecosystems natural to the Midwest? You guessed it: perennial vegetation. Think Great Plains, millions of acres of prairie before it was divided up and tilled under.
These extra-long root systems hold the soil in place, find water deep underground, take carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep underground, and when the plants die, their deep roots decompose and build the soil up and up.
Fred explains that these perennial crop projects at The Land Institute are revolutionary. “Perennial grain crops or perennial oil seed crops have never existed—never in human history—so we’re trying to bring a new thing into existence,” he says. With a “slow and steady wins the race” approach, Fred and his colleagues expect that consumers will see Kernza, and hopefully another perennial grain crop, available on a limited commercial basis over the coming 5 to 10 years.
“Farming defined a lot of my sense of self and a lot of my sense of the world,” says Fred, and his work toward a sustainable agriculture system—independent of annual crops that cause soil disturbance and require chemical herbicides—demonstrates foresight in preserving farming for generations to come.
One of our past interns took a little trip to visit the Land Institute – read about her experience here.
And if you want to hear more about perennial agriculture, tune into this Rootstock Radio interview with Keefe Keeley of the Savanna Institute, which also focuses on perennial ag as well as agroforestry.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Fred Iutzi
Air Date: April 17, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute. The Land Institute’s mission is to seek the development of an agriculture that is sustainable over the long haul, and it focuses on developing perennial crops. Exciting and interesting! Welcome, Fred.
FRED IUTZI: Hello, Anne. Glad to be here.
AOC: Yeah, thanks for joining us. Fred, so you grew up on a farm in Illinois. Did you always know you would end up working in agriculture?
FI: You know, I don’t know I can necessarily say that. My family has a long history of farming in western Illinois, all the way back to right about the time the moldboard plow was invented, so it’s a good eight generations back at this point. So farming defined a lot of my sense of self, and it defined a lot of my sense of the world.
At the same time, I was growing up during the ’80s farm crisis and the general sort of tenor of the good times for agriculture, for farming, for family farming, being behind us, and so forth. And so, you know, coming into adulthood, although I was steeped in the farm, I don’t know that I quite visualized agriculture as a place to make a career. So I launched into college and was seeking to get a good, thorough education in the sciences, the humanities, and in environmental issues, and so forth. And I happened on the writings of this guy named Wes Jackson, and that started a sort of a gradual process that kind of reawakened my interest, this time through adult eyes rather than simply growing up on agriculture, and made me see the potential to try to intervene a little bit and maybe choose a different future for agriculture than the one that was apparent to me, coming out of childhood.
AOC: So, but eventually you did find your way—through Wes Jackson and through all the studying that you did—eventually you did find your way back to agriculture.
FI: Sure! Well, my first experience of The Land Institute was as an undergraduate going to a short course in Natural Systems Agriculture. And that sort of helped feed my interest in graduate school in sustainable agriculture, which I proceeded to do at Iowa State in what was at the time the first and only graduate program specifically in sustainable agriculture in the world. I gradually circled back to what kind of piqued my reengagement in agriculture, which is this really bold proposition that The Land Institute makes: that while there are a lot of ways that we can improve on what we think of as conventional farming, that if we really want to stabilize, from an ecological standpoint, stabilize the ecosystem that our grain crop production represents, then we need to be going farther towards mimicking the natural ecosystems that are what built our soils in the Midwest, or what built the soils in any part of the world—which hinged around perennial vegetation, whether that’s a prairie or a savanna, the Texas grassland and trees, or no matter what it is, that was a perennial vegetation proposition.
But even the best annual crop systems are not a prairie in terms of ecological functionality. And so the proposition that The Land Institute makes that I found very compelling from the start is that we need to actually mimic the living root systems that persist year after year after year that perennial grasslands provide; we need to mimic the biodiversity, the mixtures of species that they provide, the ability to utilize water and nutrients, intercept nutrients before they become water pollution. You know, all these ways that a prairie is a really high-performing ecosystem, that permanent pasture in many ways is a high-performing ecosystem; soil carbon, another advantage that can be named. How do we actually capture those advantages without having a hard trade-off between achieving conservation or growing the grains and oil seeds that humanity gets most of its calories from?
AOC: Right. So on your website you talk about “perennial polycultures,” and I want to just read this paragraph because I think it sums up very nicely what you were just talking about, which is: “Those systems are self-sustaining, powered by contemporary sunlight (as opposed to ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels)”—clever!—“and maintain multiple important processes like pest control, fertility and nutrient cycling, erosion control, drought resistance and water management, and carbon sequestration. Nature does all that if we don’t impede or overburden it, and those systems produce ample food and biomass.”
So that’s really powerful stuff. But you go on to talk about, yeah, it’s not the kind of thing that we have been used to doing for the past 10,000 years. So talk about, maybe [unclear—uphill?], it’s just kind of not the way that we do things in general at this point. And like when you talked about in the ’80s, you know, farming, [unclear], people losing their farms, people had to find a different way to farm if they were going to stay in as a family farm, as a family-size farm. This is one of those ways. And yet there’s a lot of force championing different ways of doing things. Talk about that, that tension.
FI: Yeah. Yeah, well, the 10,000-year arc of history here is important to talk about in this context, because there are a lot of practices in agriculture that all that is holding back farmers and consumers from adopting them are questions of consumer preference or policy or economics. From a biological or a technological standpoint, there are not obstacles to using cover crops, to having more diverse crop rotations, for example. But for this larger leap in terms of sustainability of growing grain crops that are perennials, there’s a significant biological hurdle and technological hurdle in that perennial grain crops or perennial oil seed crops have never existed, never in human history. And so we’re trying to bring a new thing into existence that’s never existed before by talking about perennial grain crops.
AOC: So I think that you want to tell us about this perennial agriculture. There’s this new grain, Kernza grain. Can you tell us what that is?
FI: Yeah, so The Land Institute is working on several perennial grain crops, but the one that has broken out into the lead in terms of our progress towards making a real crop out of it is Kernza. Kernza is our name for intermediate wheatgrass that we and our collaborators have bred to be a grain crop. Intermediate wheatgrass is a forage grass that is naturalized in the western U.S., originally native to Asia, that has a history of being a minor forage crop. It’s a cousin to wheat that’s related to wheat the way that barley or rye are related to wheat, but it’s never been a grain crop before.
And so our researchers have been patiently, for going on 15 years now, selecting for seed size, seed yield, plants that are not “shattering,” or dropping their seed on the ground, to try to turn this forage, this perennial forage crop into a perennial grain crop. And even though Kernza is sort of a latecomer to our program—you know, we’ve had other crops we’ve been working on for quite a bit longer than 15 years—Kernza has sort of overtaken the rest of the pack and is the closest to commercialization. Wes Jackson, our founder, always has talked about a 50- to 100-year timeline for developing perennial grain crops. The Land Institute’s been around 40 years now, and we’ve been working on Kernza about 15. And so in that sense we’re pretty excited to be running out ahead of that 50- to 100-year schedule, in that we have a crop that, even though it’s very much a work-in-progress still, it’s starting to be commercialized on a sort of a very niche scale while we’re working on improving it further.
AOC: So we’re not talking about taking these grains into the lab and changing their DNA structure. We’re talking about growing plants and selecting—this is all old-school changes that you’re making here. Can you tell us about that?
FI: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s what you might call good old-fashioned plant breeding. In the case of Kernza, it basically is a permutation on observing plants in the field and picking out the most superior plants, and then saving the seed from those to plant in the next generation. There’s a lot of fancy math that’s involved in that, but the basic practice is pretty much as I described.
In other cases, with some of the other crops we’re working with, there are various genetic tools that we use in an observational vein—molecular markers, and there’s some basic sort of lab work that we do to facilitate crops that are different species but the same genus, you know, the intermating of those crops. But it’s all either observational, where we’re using some molecular biology tools to be able to better observe what the genetic code of a particular individual is, or else they’re sort of tweezer-and-scalpel kind of procedures where we might be physically manipulating a developing embryo a little bit to make sure that it’s viable as a crop plant.
You know, so far, the most manipulative techniques that exist, transgenic technology, things like that, really don’t appear to be very relevant to what we’re working on, because those techniques are mostly useful for traits that are very simple—turning on or off a single gene, or a trait with a few genes, herbicide resistance or something. And usually the traits that really count—yield, quality, persistence, perenniality—are complex traits, and so those still have to be worked on the old-fashioned way.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I am Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Fred Iutzi. We’re talking about The Land Institute and about perennial agriculture.
So Fred, Kernza has sprung ahead of the pack, maybe a surprise, and is going along. It’s not a strain or a species of wheat, but it’s a registered tradename owned by The Land Institute for a germ line of intermediate wheatgrass, right? So this is like a wild relative of annual wheat. Tell us about what you’re seeing in terms of commercializing. And you said it’s getting out there. What are you seeing with this so far?
FI: Well, it’s interesting. I have worked on alternative crops for a lot of my career prior to this, and I’m more used to having to go to a lot of effort to convince people—to convince farmers to grow and to convince buyers to want a new crop. We don’t have any of that problem with Kernza. We’ve got a long list of farmers wanting to grow it, and we’ve got buyers that, even the small amount that’s available now, buyers lining up to take it, because it’s apparent to a widening circle of people that this attribute of perenniality, that if you have a perennial crop, that you can achieve something from a sustainability standpoint or an ecosystem services standpoint that’s really very new, that’s very different than opportunities to invest in a new crop or an alternative crop that existed in the past.
So specifically what we’ve been seeing, the things that are, sort of feel like milestones to us, were last fall the announcement from Patagonia Provisions—which is a specialty food product affiliate of the Patagonia that folks are familiar of that’s a clothing manufacturer—Patagonia Provisions last fall released a beer called Long Root Ale that’s brewed from 15 percent Kernza, along with the remainder being barley. And so that’s a niche product available on the West Coast and so forth. But it was really a milestone that something, again, that we have always thought of and talked about as occurring in the distant future—you know, the commercialization of real perennial grain crops—is happening. We’re getting just a little taste of it right now.
Then more recently here, just a couple weeks ago, General Mills announced that its Cascadian Farms organic label is going to be purchasing Kernza and including that in a number of their products, blending it in with wheat flour. And there again is sort of the next step in the process.
The Kernza that’s growing today does not have nearly the yield, it doesn’t have nearly the stand life that we’re shooting for. We want to have a crop, ultimately, that’s going to last, I don’t know, 15, 20 years before you have to replace it and that has yields that are a major fraction of… We want to get as close as possible to wheat yields, for example, in the case of Kernza. And we’re not nearly there yet. But the fact that the market is so interested in this that even this relatively modest version of Kernza that’s available in 2017 is being hotly demanded is a pretty exciting time.
AOC: It is pretty exciting. It could really change the way things are in agriculture. So how about that beer? How is it?
FI: Well, it’s, you know, it’s tasty! I don’t want to do their product pitch for it, but I enjoyed it. Incidentally, some of the bakers that we’ve been giving small amounts of Kernza flour to, to experiment with for several years, have been telling us that when they get Kernza flour milled from Kernza that was grown in different parts of the U.S., it sometimes has a different taste to it, in a pleasant way, and that they’ve never experienced before from cereal grains. The suspicion here is that maybe these long root systems, dramatically longer than you would see in wheat or any annual crop, are reaching down, deep in the soil profile; and in addition to taking advantage of water and nutrients down there, deeper than an annual crop can, they’re picking up a little bit of the flavor of, you know, maybe the bedrock in a given region, in a way that just adds a little twist of flavor in there.
AOC: So yeah, the Long Root Ale is not named that for no reason. So talk to us about those crazy long roots.
FI: That’s right. Well, we go around quite a bit with a poster that we have that is a life-size photograph of a Kernza root system. And this poster is almost 20 feet long, and we unroll it, and people watch, and we keep unrolling it, and they watch, and we keep unrolling it. And it’s something to experience. Folks can see some of this root photography on our website, at landinstitute.org. But this poster shows this, just the root system on this Kernza plant is something like 14 feet long. And we have an annual wheat plant next to it, regular crop wheat, that has a root system that would be a very healthy root system, you know—I’m trained as an agronomist, I would be very happy with this wheat plant and its root system in terms of growing wheat out in the field. It looks absolutely puny.
AOC: Like how many feet? Like what are we talking about here?
FI: It might be five feet, I don’t know, and then it’s a wispy five feet. In addition to this Kernza root system that’s not only very long, but it’s also massive, their fibrous roots forming a mat that you can’t see through at all. Somebody looked at it last week and told me it reminded them of a ZZ Top beard.
AOC: (laughing) Nice!
FI: Probably a reasonable analogy.
AOC: So let me ask you a bit of a tough question, I guess. You know, I’ve just been wondering about this, and maybe you can just help me understand it. So Kernza is a registered grain, and so a registered tradename for The Land Institute. And I understand you all have done a lot of work on this over the years. But was there any discussion about whether or not to register this, or whether to do this as an open-source kind of grain? I understand the commercialization of it. How does this compare to other manufacturers of seeds, registering their seeds and only allowing people to use their seeds? Talk to me about those policy decisions.
FI: Sure, sure. Well, so Kernza is literally a registered trademark, so the word “Kernza” is trademarked. And so we have to approve the use of “Kernza,” sort of police the use of “Kernza” to make sure that it describes grain that’s produced from an intermediate wheatgrass plant that meets a certain definition there. Our intent for the genetics here, or for the seed, for the plants, is for them to be very much open-source.
AOC: Oh, that’s great to hear.
FI: We’ve not asserted plant variety protection yet, as is done with other crop varieties that are developed, because we don’t have anything that’s a finished cultivar yet, at this point. But we intend to take steps, as they become pertinent in the process, to make sure, as is done in the open-source software that sort of sparked this “open-source” term, to make sure that we’re nailing down the intellectual property so that nobody else can swoop in and sort of close it up and prevent other people from accessing it. We want it to be, as part of our public service mission as a nonprofit organization, we want to be able to steward that and make it freely and openly available to everyone. This is something that’s being done from the beginning, in the cause of a sustainable future for agriculture and for people around the world and for a prosperous future for family farming. And so we see it as very appropriate for it to be an open-source kind of proposition.
AOC: That’s so great to hear. That makes a lot more sense of what I know about The Land Institute, so I appreciate you explaining that.
This has been really widely well received. People are excited about it, they can’t wait to start growing it; they can’t, obviously, can’t wait to start using it in their products. And you talked about this 15 years versus 50 years versus 100 years. How long do you think it will take now, when we have one product, one look and glimpse here of something that could really enter into the commercialization of the system. How long before more of these varieties are developed and you start seeing these things grown on a larger scale?
FI: Well, I mean, I still expect it’ll be measured in decades before this fully arrives. You know, Kernza itself, even though we have a crop that is yielding enough that it makes sense to run a combine through it and harvest it, and that it’s a price that some buyers are willing to pay, Kernza itself is still very much a work-in-progress. And I don’t think we’ll be meeting our final goals for Kernza for 10, 20, 30 years conceivably, although it’ll get better and better every year, hopefully. Each year we’ll have better and better varieties, essentially, developed.
With the other crops that we work with, it’ll be a similar proposition, where in each case there’ll be a judgment call about whether… So, for example, we have a perennial sorghum project that is taking grain sorghum like is grown here in Kansas, where we’re based, and historically in a lot of places in the U.S., and breeding perenniality into that crop. There’ll be a judgment call at some point, as there was in Kernza, where is this, is what we have perennial enough, is it high-yielding enough that it makes sense to start encouraging limited commercial use while we continue to make it better and better? And so people can expect to see, over the coming years, over the coming 5 to 10 years, hopefully there will be at least one other crop that starts being used on a limited commercial basis, and then things will phase in, in decades to come.
So people may see, at some point in the coming years, us entering the marketplace with a crop that’s a perennial wheat that is more directly cost-competitive to annual wheat, if we can get this perennial set of traits in place in our perennial wheat project. So we’ve got a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race type of a proposition with Kernza that we’re gradually making the yield and the stand life a little better every year in a fairly predictable way. And then we’ve got this sort of, this project we’re trying to find a genetic opportunity to sprint forward on it.
AOC: Well, so yeah, and that would be huge, because wheat accounts for what, 20 percent of human food, calories, more protein than the other grain that, you talk about that. But either way, I mean, what you’re saying is this is the work that you’re doing. You’re moving forward, and at some point we’re going to find these things on our grocery store shelves.
FI: Yeah. We don’t, you know, we try very hard not to promise farmers today that these are the crops that are going to pay off their mortgage or pay for the next combine or whatever; and we don’t promise to consumers today that these are the crops that are going to be able to make them feel dramatically better about what they’re buying at the grocery store. What we do promise is that, for their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, that these are the crops that are going to be what they can center their farming on, or that they can see and they can participate in reforming the food system around. So it’s a long-term vision that we’re trying to cast here.
AOC: Fred, thank you for joining me today.
FI: Thank you for having me on.
AOC: And if our listeners would like to learn more about your work and The Land Institute, where should they go?
FI: So our website would be a great place to start: landinstitute.org is how to find that. You can call us at 785-823-5376. Either of those ways will connect you to our folks.
AOC: Excellent. Thanks, Fred. And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. See you next week!
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