The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research awarded a $992,419 Seeding Solutions grant to the University of Minnesota to accelerate the development of intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza by The Land Institute, which is a perennial plant.
According to FFAR, perennial crops like Kernza reduce labor and input costs, and their deep roots reduce soil erosion and trap more carbon, benefitting the environment. The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, with funding from Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy funds via the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; the Malone Family Land Preservation Foundation, via the Perennial Agriculture Project; and The Land Institute provided matching funds for a total $1,985,206 investment.
FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey notes that, “A large scale, cost-effective perennial crop would be a boon to growers and the environment. This grant is funding research that is a huge leap forward in the technology and timeframe for developing sustainable and affordable next-generation grain crops.”
Kernza is a nutritious grain commercially used in some small niche-market health foods and products such as bread, cookies and beer. However, the crop has downsides that prevent widespread adoption. Kernza is expensive, costing buyers 10 to 20 times more than wheat because its yields are currently less than half of a typical wheat crop. Like other perennials, Kernza’s annual yield decreases over time. While current breeding techniques have increased Kernza’s viability as a potentially profitable crop, it would take researchers another 20 years to match wheat yields using these methods. To be a wide-scale, sustainable crop, scientists must breed a crop variety with increased and consistent yields from year to year on a faster timeline.
University of Minnesota researchers, led by Dr. James Anderson, are developing techniques to speed breed high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of Kernza. Researchers are evaluating varieties of Kernza based on seed size and number as well as plant structures, which increase yield. The team is also developing new genetic fingerprinting technology to facilitate genomic selection that allows researchers to screen Kernza for traits while the plant is still a seedling. The tool enables predictive selection of seedling plants for further breeding, unlike traditional techniques that select from fully grown plants, requiring years of evaluation.
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