Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Minnesota is home to the 5th-largest agricultural sector in the nation. About half of the state’s farming income comes from crop agriculture, of which corn and soybeans are the dominant products. Corn is especially prevalent – Minnesota is the fourth-largest producer in the nation and is home to more than a dozen ethanol plants.
Unfortunately, these dominant crops and the ways they are typically farmed have consequences for the air above us and the water below us. Corn is an input-heavy crop, requiring significant applications of fertilizer and pesticides, which seep into the soil and groundwater and run off into ditches and streams. Its roots don’t grow very deep and store little carbon in the soil. And the tillage that occurs on many fields results in degradation of the soil, a significant threat to the health and viability of Minnesota farmland and dramatic loss of soil carbon. Soybeans and other major summer annual crops present similar challenges.
All these problems are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn has been worsened by emissions from agriculture, one of the state’s three largest sectors for greenhouse gases. It’s one of the greatest obstacles to effective climate action in Minnesota, but it’s also one of our great opportunities to cut and absorb emissions.
The replacement of almost 18 million acres of Minnesota prairie with row crops created plenty of food, but it wiped out the “ecosystem services” that the prairie provided – carbon sequestration, soil renewal, clean water, flood protection, and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Given Minnesota’s struggles with water pollution, declining pollinators, depleted soil, and climate change, we need a change. To that end, a network of scientists, business leaders, legislators, and environmental advocates have worked to support the development of crops that can provide some of those services, primarily through the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. MEP and our allies have been strong supporters and long term leaders in promoting this effort and of critical funding for Forever Green at the Legislature.
Right now, our efforts are literally bearing fruit, or in this case, grain.
A few months ago, we covered a field tour of Forever Green led by MEP and Friends of the Mississippi River, and we’re glad to report that the crops we shared with lawmakers and industries are making waves, and in some cases, making it to the shelves.
One of the most visible crops that Forever Green focuses on breeding is Kernza©, a perennial wheatgrass initially developed by the Land Institute in Kansas. Unlike corn and soybeans, Kernza® plants remain in the soil for at least several years, and build massive root systems that can grow 10 feet deep or more. Because of those roots, Kernza® does a great job at holding together soil in the face of heavy rains and floods (illustrated by the top photo in this article), can help keep groundwater clean, and is highly drought-resistant compared with the most prevalent crops. It also increases carbon storage in the soil.
Today, Kernza© isn’t a pipe dream – products made with the perennial wheatgrass are making their way to supermarket shelves. Companies like General Mills and Perennial Pantry are now buying the grain and offering consumer products. Whole Foods has conducted a limited release of a cereal made with Kernza®. The Washington Post covered the crop’s commercial in depth this past week.
The challenge for Forever Green and for Minnesota will be scaling up Kernza® and other promising clean water crops like pennycress, hybrid hazelnuts, and winter camelina. Each crop has different characteristics and advantages, but all show promise for commercial viability – if policymakers help support the emerging market for them and the farmers who want to give them a try. Business as usual isn’t working for our people or planet, but with the right steps forward, we can feed ourselves and restore our natural resources with a new revolution in farming.
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